Rumors Can’t Be Disproven: Please Spread These

I like rumors as much as the next person, if the next person is Truman Capote or someone else who really loves rumors. I mean, outlandish and unsubstantiated stories are entertaining even as they’re being dismissed. Since I hear rumors of rumors about me and my current life, I figured I’d spice up the plot by throwing in a dozen of my own. Hell, I’ll make it a baker’s dozen; did you hear I’ve been romantically linked with the-cute-as-hell Sarah Silverman, preparing for a wedding with a poop-shaped cake? Do spread that one, along with these:

 

  1. I’ve gotten my old band, Pus Theory, back together and we are working on a greatest hits album. Given our first CD didn’t sell enough to make me even a hundredaire, “hits” is clearly a flexible word. Also, Pus Theory was me playing around with Audacity software 20 years ago, so getting the band back together involved group therapy in a mirror. Among songs being considered for inclusion are: “Catchy Dance Number,” “Ballad to Break Teenage Hearts” and “Heavy, Deep Pink Floyd Soundalike.”
  2. While I claim to be working on a memoir, I’m actually rewriting The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, intending to claim royalties on the Howard Stove, the lightning rod and bifocals.
  3. The Tiny White Box is actually a Large White Box of about 6,500 square feet and located in Malibu. I am not among its most wanted, but I have been working on my backhand with great ferocity.
  4. I am in Israel, studying Gnostic texts and preparing to announce myself as the second coming of Mani. Since few people remember Mani and his philosophy, Manicheanism, this seems an odd choice, but only to you who are trapped in the body instead of free in the spirit.
  5. The Keith Howard who signs this column is not me but Bandit Keith Howard from the Yu-Gi-Oh! universe. (Look it up!) Having escaped from a Japanese fictional reality, I am now learning about the three-dimensional world, food and girls.
  6. While I may use the phrase “Tiny White Box,” this is a euphemism for my jail cell, where I am on house arrest on charges of conspiracy to commit conspiracy.
  7. I never went to Pittsburg, but am writing this from the New Hampshire Home for the Confused, where I am being treated for anhedonia, alopecia and a bad case of hemorrhoids.
  8. I’ve relocated to Sioux City, Iowa, where I’ve opened a small dry-cleaning business specializing in rodents with rabies. Dry cleaning is required because of the disease’s hydrophobia.
  9. I’ve been taken hostage, locked up in a shed, and these columns are written in blood on Kleenexes and sent out by the wind. My editor at Tiny White Box Industries transcribes them, bleaches the Kleenexes and throws them out his car window.
  10. I’m on the run from the Trump Administration because President Trump was annoyed by my public endorsement of John Kasich. The President sees my radical moderation as a threat to tweet-stormers everywhere. How can creamed spinach co-exist with Drano?
  11. This year in a Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods has nothing to do with writing, meditating or walking. It’s really a form of penance for having embarrassed Cathy Palmer and the rest of my kindergarten classroom by dropping my pants in class. Given the length of this penance, I will be, conservatively, 107 years old by the time I’m making amends for eating a live sea minnow to, unsuccessfully, impress Carol Tillock in seventh grade. Luckily for me, I like it here, and I’m not adding to my list of crimes while I contemplate my embarrassment of others.
  12. My biological mother, Sally Piper, about whom I’ve written a couple columns, was an heiress to the Piper jet fortune, and I’ve inherited four-million dollars. The future I’m plotting is that of an eccentric wealthy man instead of an eccentric writer.

At least one of these may be true for all I know.

 

 

Keeping Me Honest—Update on New Year’s Resolution

On New Year’s Day, almost two months ago, I vowed to reconnect with 13 people, all of whom matter to me but whom I hadn’t seen since moving to the Tiny White Box. Each of these folks is important to me, and I don’t want to lose touch with them just because I’m four hours away.

If I’d vowed on January 1 to lose weight, I’d have posted my start weight, my target weight, then included regular updates on my progress and regress. Since my weight 60 days ago was probably 145, and my target weight is 143, columns devoted to the topic would be pretty boring.

Instead, here is a quick update on the people I’ve sat down with so far this year, and a promise of how I’m going to follow up with the others.  Obviously, my connection with each is personal, but I’ll try to give enough background for you to see why these folks matter to me.

Two month in, I think I’ve made reasonably good effort toward this goal, and will try to post more often on this progress. Of course, one of my other failings as a man is laying out good intentions, then finding other roads leading to hell. Feel free to poke me if I fail.

Don Cox—Don is a renaissance man, a musician, a choirmaster and conductor, a retired professor of humanities and a southern gentleman. Raised in Mississippi, Don met me at a motorcycle rally to benefit Liberty House five years ago. As it happens, I recited an A.E. Housman poem apropos of, probably, nothing, and he was apparently fooled into thinking I am wiser than I am.  Since then, Don and I have gotten together for lunch every six or eight weeks, and although it’s nearly impossible for me to go on pretending to be well read and urbane, Don has been gracious enough to keep silent when I refer to Henry James as William James’ dumbass kid brother or make mention of Tiglath Pileser the Third as Tigger III.

Don and I had a January lunch in Concord, where he told me about his conducting career, the joy in working with serious musicians and the challenge of not seeing his sons and grandchildren as often as he’d like. Although I don’t have a transcript, I expect I offered base amusement of some kind, likely connected to one of my half-baked notions. As always with Don, I was thankful that a man so gifted would spend time with me.

Virginia Theo-Steelman—Ginny is, like Don, WAY overqualified to be my friend. She is a therapist, a former Liberty House board member, a trustee of the UNH system and a wise tactician. She is also very, very funny. I met with Ginny and her husband, David, in January, where we discussed international travel, physical aches and pains, Durham history and the use of armored cavalry through the ages. I know a bit about Durham history, but other than that I tried to be a sponge.

Max Paul—Max is a man about whom I can’t say too much because we belong to a secret society which would drum me out if I revealed our handshake or burial ground. He’s also a Vietnam vet, a really funny man and someone who helped me through a lot of my journey after getting sober. We met at Chez Vachon, where I had Gorton, and Max was sensible.

Greg Kunkel—I’ve known Greg for three years, and have seen him go from being a shy shrinking butterfly to a community-theater actor, respected professional, marathoner and excellent chef. Also, he’s got a better beard than I ever will. Because of his frenetically busy life, we met for coffee in between Greg’s workouts and a date with his beautiful girlfriend.

Dan Bricker—If ever a man deserved his last name, it’s Dan Bricker. A therapist with the Vets Center—not mine, so don’t blame him for my failure to accept reality—Dan is a combat vet who pins demons like Dan Gable (and if you get that reference, you’re very old indeed). Dan is professional, measured, calm and patient. In short, he and I are opposites. Still, we love each other, and had a great dinner at the Tuckaway Tavern, a place I recommend highly despite not getting any advertising money from them.

Dianne Hathaway—Another person much wiser, better read and kinder than I, Dianne still seems to like the stuff I write. I suspect she’s hoping my potential will someday flower, and she can say “I knew him when.” Unfortunately, since 60 is pushing back on me, I’m afraid any potential may have rotted in the ground. Dianne also is a deeply spiritual person who practices patience and acceptance for every minute she spends with me.

Bob Hunt—Bob and I are both full-of-crap blowhards with hearts of if not gold at least copper. Before our coffee in Plymouth last month, the last two times we’d seen each other were at his daughter’s funeral in Bob’s ICU room, so it was healing to rib each other, talk some smack and give each other a hug.

So, two months into the year, it’s seven people reconnected with, six more to go.

 

 

No More Crises Because That’s All Life Is

A little over a week ago, I wrote about my friend, Larissa, who’d just been fired from her teaching job (https://tinywhitebox.com/2018/02/18/too-smart-and-charming-for-our-own-good/). Larissa is very smart, very creative and very deep into problem-drinking territory. In fact, by her admission, Larissa long ago had her visa stamped at the gates of alcoholism. Regardless, Larissa had called me for help and advice, knowing I’d been in her shoes, and hoping I could help her navigate her way into sobriety.

In a perfect world, I could have driven the four hours to see her, whispered magic words into an amulet, placed it around her neck, and she’d never drink again. In a perfect world, Larissa could have met me at her door, asking to go to an AA meeting, where she’d meet a woman who’d offer to walk her through the twelve steps of that organization as Larissa got used to living without booze. In a perfect world, Larissa could look at the mess she and her drinking had made of her life, put the plug in the jug and move on to a life without alcohol.

This ain’t no perfect world, as my friend Tonio K. reminds us.

I drove south a week ago yesterday, sat with Larissa for two or three hours, listening to the same words, phrases and rationalizations I’d told myself for years. It turned out Larissa had already found a new job, beginning in 10 days. Without wanting to betray any confidences (and of course I’ve changed enough details about Larissa to make her unidentifiable), I can give the gist of our conversation in a few sentences.

“So I just need to figure a way to be perfect for a couple weeks,” she said.

“Perfect?” I asked. “That seems like a pretty tall order.”

“Not perfect perfect,” she said. “I just need to not drink at all for a couple weeks, get a few good days in at the new job, then only drink on my way home from work. No more drinking on the way to work.”

“So ‘perfect’ means not drinking until you’ve had your job for a few days?”

And not drinking on my way to work after that,” she said. “That’s an important part. There’s just one problem.”

One? Oh, yes, the problem of alcoholism’s progressive nature and its ability to infect our entire lives and personalities. I wanted to say this, but didn’t.

“What’s that one problem?” I did say.

“DT’s. I get them really bad if I don’t drink. Shakes, hallucinations, blood pressure off the charts. Don’t worry—I’ve got a bottle of Benzos. I was hoping I could come and stay with you to help me get through this. You could park my car miles away, and not tell me where the nearest store is.”

So Larissa’s plan was, in essence, for me to hold her prisoner in the Great North Woods, with no medical support other than her “bottle of benzos” (benzodiazepine, a class of tranquilizers carrying their own addiction risk) and my kind and thoughtful ignorance of all things medical. I may not know how that story ends exactly (death, assault, pathetic lies, fractured relationships?), but I believe it’s always tragic. Still, I also know it’s the kind of plan I developed for myself, over and over and over, for years, although mine usually included the proviso: “And I’ll quit drinking not THIS weekend—I’ve got too much to do—but next weekend,” thus keeping the moment of truth always within sight but never within implementation.

Rather than throw a freezing wet blanket over Larissa’s plan, I asked her to call me each day, just to check in, to go to meetings and to try to find a woman locally who might be able to help her during these difficult early days. As I suspected, as I feared, as I goddamned knew when the phone didn’t ring it was Larissa. After a few days, I texted her “Daily phone calls?” and got back “oh right sorry my bad,” followed by more non-ringing phones.

I don’t relate this to embarrass Larissa or anyone else who’s struggling to find a way to struggle to quit drinking. I danced that same dance for years, making a decision to quit drinking and believing that decision was the same as accomplishing the goal. Ask anyone who’s decided to commit suicide yet is still above ground. “Deciding” is not taking the first step; it’s not putting on hiking boots; it’s not even getting out of the chair. Deciding is, for many alcoholics, a way to put off doing anything.

For a decade, I firmly intended to quit drinking, and each time a crisis erupted like an infected pimple on a teenager’s face, I’d change that intention to a firm decision, iron-clad until the pimple stopped hurting. Then I’d go back to drinking. Of course, one of the nice things about the disease of alcoholism is its progressive nature. The longer I put off doing anything, the more frequent the crises came until eventually my life was the crisis.

 

 

Marie Myers, Hogan’s Heroes and Me

When I was seven in 1966, World War II had only been over for 21 years. Think about that. Twenty years ago today we (and by we, I mean old farts like me) were focused on blue dresses and dried semen; when this story took place, almost every dad I knew had been part of the military in a huge war.  Every evening at dusk, all the dads, unconsciously, I think, would be outside, walking the perimeter of their property, making sure the enemy wasn’t near.  Many of the TV shows I watched were either set in or informed by The War.  From McHale’s Navy to Combat! to Leave it to Beaver (Ward was a Seabee and referred to it occasionally) to, even, The Dick Van Dyke Show (as I recall, Rob and Laura Petrie met on a USO tour in the Pacific.)  World War Two was so much a part of the cultural DNA, I didn’t recognize it was even there, if that makes any sense.  Even my mom had Home-Front war stories, although she was just a kid of 12 when The War started.

In 1966, though, my mom was not a kid; she was a grown-ass homemaker of 37.  Having grown up in Durham, she had a lot of townie friends; being a reader and having been part of the young married set—until I came along, I suppose—she also had a bunch of educated friends.  By and by, I imagine I’ll write about some of those friends, but now I just want to talk about one—Marie Myers.

Marie was Jewish. Marie was German. Marie’s parents lived in Durham as well, and while the chronology was never made clear to me, I knew Marie’s parents had escaped with her from Germany and the Nazis. Other than that, Marie Myers was just another one of my mom’s friends, someone we’d visit every now and then, my mom and Marie talking about old-lady stuff while my sister and I went off with Robin, Marie’s daughter, to play or stare sullenly at each other depending on mood. My first memory of the Myers family was going out to dinner with them when I was in first grade. We went to Yokens, a local seafood restaurant, and for some reason I ordered veal, having declared I didn’t like fish and having no idea I’d ordered calf. I remember not caring for it either and developing a reputation as a picky eater, undeserved, since I’d eat anything that was salty and/or sweet, as long as it didn’t come from the ocean or remind me of babies.

My second memory of Marie Myers is much clearer and has stayed with me ever since, informing much of my view of history. I’d spent the day with Marie and her family at the lake, because I know we were driving on the north side of Winnipesaukee at night, Robin and Jennifer asleep in the back seat and me wide awake and yammering with Marie in the front. Marie was a kind chain-smoking woman, so her face was regularly illuminated by the burning tube in her mouth.

Given my logorrhea and ability to jump from topic to topic, Marie was mainly a captive audience. At one point, I started talking about my favorite television shows of the moment, giving a seven-year-old’s critical impression of such classics as “My Mother the Car,” a sitcom based on the premise that Jerry Van Dyke’s mother had died and been reincarnated into a 1928 Porter Touring Wagon, speaking to her son through the radio. Think of it as an edgier “Mr. Ed,” with the radio’s flashing light replacing Ed’s moving lips. After I’d gone through “Bewitched,” “Flipper,” “Gidget” and “Gomer Pyle,” I moved on to more grown-up fare, mentioning how funny I thought Sergeant Schultz and Colonel Klink were on “Hogan’s Heroes.”

At the mention of this show, Marie stopped being an uncritical ear to my blather. Throwing her cigarette out the window, she slowly pulled the car over to the shoulder, pulled on the parking brake, turned on the dome light and looked at me. Although I clearly don’t remember her exact words, my memory of the moment follows.

“Keith, you like me, right?”

“Course,” I said, no idea what this was about.

“And Robin’s your friend, right.”

“Yeah,” I said, not bothering to go into the complications of a boy-girl friendship in second grade.

“The two characters you mention from that show are not funny. They wanted to kill me and Robin and Billy and every Jew you know. The Nazis wanted to kill my parents, and that’s why we came to America, and no TV show should portray them as anything but monsters. Remember who they are. Remember what they wanted. Remember this: the Nazis wanted to kill your friends.”

“Okay,” I said. “I won’t watch it anymore.”

To the best of my memory, I never did. Even today, I can’t walk through a room where the show is airing in syndication without delivering a sermonette on how wrong the premise of “Hogan’s Heroes” is. Nazis were not bumbling fools—they were efficient killers of my friends.

An Addendum: Marie would later be my high-school social studies teacher, trying to teach me world politics, a task made difficult by my jackassery. The culminating experience in the course was a model-UN experience where each student represented a nation he or she had been studying all semester. At the time, Muammar Gaddafi was a dashing young colonel who’d recently seized control in Libya, the country I’d chosen. By the time the UN sessions began, though, I’d decided my goal was the end of the world. As my classmates were negotiating trade treaties with Belgium or international aid deals for Nigeria, I was lobbing bombs at all my neighbors. Had Marie known this was the future of the little boy sitting next to her on that long-ago car ride, she might have included a powerful soliloquy on the importance of taking school assignments seriously, or, at the very least, not trying to end the world.

 

Mi-Te-Na Born and Mi-Te-Na Bred

I loved summer camp.  Really. While in Durham I was one of, say, 100 boys within a two-year cohort, at Camp Mi-Te-Na I was one of 50 boys in my “village.” For gifted athletes, these odds wouldn’t change their lives much. After all, the cream always rises to the top. For me, barely whole milk and more often 2%, being at camp meant I was considered a catch for any sport—after all, at least some of those 50 other athletes were anti-athletic, injured or simply incapable of hand-eye coordination. In baseball, for instance, the sport I loved most and was best at, I was a catcher. In Durham, just in my grade I was the second-best at this position—and no matter how hard I tried I was never going to be better than Gordon Beatty. At Mi-Te-Na I was able every year, from age 10 to 14, to walk onto the ball field, declare myself the catcher and be seen as good. It was an amazing feeling, not having to prove myself with every inning, and each year I’d return from camp encouraging my parents to move to a town half Durham’s size, so I could be THE catcher, instead of a catcher.

Even in basketball, a game I never understood although I was good at running up and down the court and raising my hands scarily when on defense, at Mi-Te-Na I was good enough to play, simply by being willing to be on the team. Granted, we only played one basketball and one baseball game during each two-week session, typically against our rival, Camp Fatima, a Catholic camp. Still, I was one of the guys playing basketball, a first for me.

Mi-Te-Na also introduced me to sailing and canoeing, archery and riflery, and the pleasures of gathering around a campfire to hear ghost stories and sing the camp song, with its oath to be true to the camp even after death, a ghoulish proposition given the terrifying tales we’d just heard.

Much as I loved being seen as a for-real hotshot athlete, it was the camp dances with our sister camp, Camp Foss, that most transformed my image of myself. Girls in my upper elementary and junior high school knew me for what I was—a pompous clown who disrupted class and talked weird. I think it’s fair to say no girl in Durham, NH, from 1969-1973, looked at me as a potential boyfriend, and I don’t blame them.

At camp, though, things were different. With so few athletes, I was an athlete. With so few suave guys, I was a suave guy. With so little competition, I was a competitor. Walking onto the dance floor—the dining hall with a portable stereo set up in the corner—I wasn’t a geeky freak with a penchant for disruption, I was one of the guys. Given that the girls from Camp Foss were bused in, given Cheetos and Bug Juice, and expected to mingle and dance, their expectations must have been fairly low. Bored, lonely girls with low expectations were my target demographic, and that boredom led to a “what the hell” attitude about intimacy that Durham never provided. My first kiss, etc., came at those dances, and I don’t know that I’ll ever feel as justifiably attractive again. Even when I’m Mi-Te-Na dead.

In Praise of Donald Trump (Time Sensitive—Post Before Events/Tweets Undermine It)

I’ve wanted to write this column since I began this site. Unfortunately, each of my earlier attempts was overwhelmed by nonsense before I could publish. This time I’ve taken a media fast before that happens.

Last night President Trump hosted a listening session on gun violence in schools. I don’t have access to video, so I couldn’t see any of the speakers’ faces nor the President’s response to what

they had to say. Instead, like a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps worker, I had just audio to go on. Still, I think my impressions are valid, and will until I listen to my chosen news sources and learn I missed everything important. (Full disclosure: My media sources are limited, and are primarily podcast based, so I’ve included a list of podcasts I’ve listened to in the past week at the bottom of this post.)

My impressions of the listening session:

–President Trump didn’t interrupt or bully anyone, and seemed to keep his comments short and intended to move the conversation along. This came as a very pleasant surprise, given his need at times to keep the spotlight on himself.

–The makeup of the speakers didn’t strike me as biased in one direction or the other. Speakers seemed to have first- or second-hand experience with school issues, and they spoke of those experiences movingly.

–I would have liked more specific suggestions, but that may not have been the purpose of this session. It did offer an emotional view of the issue, and one can only hope it’ll be followed up by legislation.

–The one off-note was discussion of arming teachers. Having worked in schools for 20 years, I immediately picture a classroom disturbance being “solved” by a teacher pulling a gun to calm things down, a teacher losing a gun or a student overpowering an armed educator and taking the weapon. Given how many reasonable ideas exist (regulating assault rifles, taxing ammunition, longer waiting periods, stricter background checks, etc., etc., etc.), this notion is just silly.

–President Trump should be praised for organizing such a session. That said, a number of speakers began by talking of what a great leader he is, a practice not in keeping with our history of valuing the servant leader rather than the strong man.

I’ll quickly post this, and will continue to keep an open document on my desk with the title “In Praise of Donald Trump.” I really do want him to be successful, but he often makes that so hard.

My Political News Podcasts for the Past Week:

Daily Standard (Weekly Standard—conservative)

The Remnant (National Review—conservative)

Fox News Sunday, Face the Nation, NBC Meet the Press, This Week with George Stephanopoulos—Sunday Talk Shows Centrist

Slate’s Political Gabfest—Liberal

Rachel Maddow, Morning Joe—MSNBC Liberal

(A note on this list: I’d appreciate recommendations on interesting conservative political news podcasts. I’ve tried to listen to Ben Shapiro and Sean Hannity. Both are as biased as Chris Matthews—and just as annoying for that reason.)

The Camera Tells the Truth; The Editor Tells the Story

From the cutting-room floor of WMUR.

Videographed/edited by Paul Falco

Interview conducted 1/29/18 by Sean McDonald

Subject: Keith Howard, Tiny White Box

Transcript Follows, McDonald’s Questions/Comments in Bold:

“I first got interested in politics in 1972, when I was 13.  Since you’ve given me free rein to trot through my past, I’ll tell you that if Norm Platine hadn’t been such a pompous popinjay, and if my mother hadn’t defended my indefensible behavior, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.

“In fact, we might have been sitting facing the woods instead of facing the road.  I don’t really know how much impact one choice or action makes on the entire future, but I suspect a food fight was my vin-dit.”

Sir?  I mean, Keith, what does that mean?”

“A food fight in a junior-high-school cafeteria, a fight I’d started, was the crystal that taught the rest of my life how to unfold.  What kind of upbringing did you have, Sean, that you don’t know what a food fight is?”

I know what a food fight is, but I dont know that other word you used.

“Vin-dit? In addition to being a lapsed Christian, I’m also a terrible Buddhist and a very poor Bokononist.  Bokonon taught that a vin-dit is a sharp and personal shove in the direction of Boknonism.  It made it possible for me to join my karass, a group of people whose lives are joined together to do God’s work, even though they may have no idea why they are enjoined and what that purpose is. It’s from Cats Cradle.  By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr?”

“I’ve heard of him.  Didn’t he also write about meat-packing plants?”

“Good one, Sean!  You’re confusing Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut with The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  The latter encouraged Americans to eat tinned meat, since fresh meat didn’t have the processing to kill all the disease it carried.  The former, as Vonnegut said somewhere about something had all the effect of a man dressing up in a knight’s costume and riding full speed, lance horizontal, at an ice-cream sundae—with whipped cream!

“Since you’re giving me free rein, I’ll ride the Bokonon horse a bit longer.  The karass I referred to, the first of many, was political liberals on a college campus in small-town New England in the spring of 1972.  That food fight, begun, I believe, when out of boredom I brought a bowl of chocolate pudding up to my mouth, pretending it was a hand grenade, pulled its pin with my teeth and tossed it an arc that ended 30 feet away.  Apparently no one at that table knew they were at war, so I did the same thing with an open milk container.  This was the actual casus belli, and the battle was joined.  It was good clean fun.  Until an informer sitting at my table collected his 30 pieces of silver from the Romans.

“I’ve got to stop there for a second.  Even with my inflated view of myself, I can’t draw me as a Christ figure, and the traitor as Judas.  I did form a cult in high school, but that was three years later, and had nothing to do with this. Let me just say a trusted lieutenant betrayed me to the authorities. Or, more honestly, a kid sitting at my table told Mr. Platine, the principal.

“Still, this would have been no vin-dit if Platine hadn’t tried to write over his vocabulary and if my mother hadn’t been my mother.”

“Keith, you’ve lost me here. How does a food fight and your principal and your mother lead to leftist politics?”

“So I could find my karass! Aren’t you listening?  Anyway, Mr. Platine, after studying the facts, decided I would be banned from entering the cafeteria for a week, forced to eat alone in a classroom.  To be fair to Platine, I was now in mid-February of my eighth-grade year, 13 years old, and he’d had to deal with me since the first day of class in sixth grade, when I’d been sent to his office for disrupting a class.  He was likely drained by this time, having lectured me for two-and-a-half years about the importance of shutting my goddamned mouth.  So, I was to bring a book to an empty classroom each day for a week.  If it weren’t for his letter.”

“His letter?”

“Yes.  I didn’t figure my parents needed to know about this—at 13, I felt I was pretty much my own man—so I hadn’t said anything.  Platine, though, sent a letter through the mail to my mom that set things in motion.”

“Was he disrespectful?”

“Nope.  Not at all.  He just stood on his verbal tippy-toes when writing it.  Apparently, he felt he couldn’t send home a simple slip of paper with my crime and my punishment.  Instead, he wrote a full-page, single-spaced outline of concerns about me—poor grades, poor behavior, disrespect—all accurate.  In the final paragraph, though, he described the food fight and my role in it, finishing with the sentence ‘In lieu of Keith’s most recent behavioral outburst, I have no choice but to bar him from entry to the cafeteria for the next week.’”

Extended pause.

“Your mother didn’t like the word ‘outburst?’”

“No, no, no! ’In lieu of’ means ‘instead of.’  Platine meant ‘in light of,’ but thought ‘lieu’ sounded fancier—despite it making the sentence unintelligible.  My mother was not a pedant, but she valued communication, and she despised the abuse of language.

“She immediately got out pen and paper, informed Platine of his mistake, asked how he could be a principal if he couldn’t draft a simple business letter, and said he needn’t worry about my behavior in the cafeteria, because I would never eat in that cafeteria again.  She let me read it, then folded it carefully and gave it to me to pass in at the principal’s office the next morning.

“I said, ‘But, Mom!  If I don’t eat in the cafeteria, I’ll be stuck eating alone the rest of the year!’”

“’That is a problem,’” she said.  “’There must be something better for you to do with that 45 minutes than sit in an empty room for the whole time.  What about going to the library?’”

“Now, my mom was crazy about libraries, thought they contained all the world’s knowledge.  Unfortunately for me, the school librarian was Mrs. Mooradian, a friend of my mother’s who had repeatedly ratted me out for things like looking up dirty words in the dictionary and, most recently, taking a woodscrew out of a library table and walking up to girls and saying, ‘You wanna screw?’  Even my mom took issue with that.

“Years later—and I can see, Sean, these circumlocutions are getting on your nerves, so I’ll try to control them—years later, I had a male student who would walk up to his friends’ mothers and say, ‘Excuse me, I think you’ve got a little jism on your lips.’  When they would react with shock, he’d say, ‘Isn’t jism one of those Yiddish words, like schmutz, you’ve got some schmutz on your face?’  When they said NO, he’d put on his best little-boy face and say, “Then what is jism?’

“Anyway, Mrs. Mooradian was a good friend to my mom, which made her a threat to me, so the last thing I wanted was to have her prying eyes looking at me all the time.  I needed to think fast, and did.  ‘Mom, I’ve got reading class right before lunch.  I already know how to read, so how about you set it up for me to go to the UNH library for that hour-and-a-half?  It’s only a 10-minute walk from school, and I’ll learn a lot.’”

“Now, my mother had grown up in Durham, the daughter of the man who started the Thompson School there, the two-year redheaded stepchild of a state research university.  The Thompson School was designed to offer farm boys an introduction to ‘scientific’ methods of farming.  My grandfather—Gramper, I called him—was unusual in 1930s and 1940s Durham.  He’d been raised up in Machias, Maine, near the Canadian border.  It was a little fishing town, and he and his kid brother, Donald, both wanted to get out of there.  Gramper was lucky—and smart, I guess—and got a scholarship to college, while Donald had to work his way out of there.  Gramper made it farther—out of the state, at least—while Donald made a living as a plumbing and heating guy in South Portland, Maine.

“I’m sorry, Sean.  I can tell you noticed when the narrative took a new path.  You reach a certain age, and it’s the ability to keep going that’s exciting, not any particular destination.  So Gramper left Machias, went to college and ended up schoolmaster in Colebrook, 20 miles south from here.  It’s funny, but growing up my mother would refer to Colebrook as though it were in the middle of nowhere. Now that I live on the outskirts of nowhere, Colebrook is the nearest civilizational outpost, where I go for supplies and companionship.

“When my mother finally moved to Durham in, say, 1937, it was the library she loved best.  Having grown up in rural towns, where the library’s children’s section was a bookshelf, the UNH Library was holy to her, having a whole room devoted to children and storeys devoted to other stories. It was Mecca. It was Jerusalem. It was a goddamned library! When I asked her to arrange for me to leave school to spend 90 minutes a day at the UNH Library, I was making all her dreams for me come true. She asked for the Platine letter back and rewrote it. Platine approved the plan, both to assuage her and banish me. Win. Win. Win.”

“Keith? You were going to talk about politics.”

“Of course I was. And I am. This is just setting a context.”

End of Transcript.