Magic is a time and not a place

Devils Elbow, Missouri, was magic in the summer of 1980. At least for me. I assumed it would stay magical forever. On that, I was mistaken.

In February 1980, I was still an Army journalist at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri,, doing a daily radio show that I’d physically deliver to two local radio stations, nearly indistinguishable rivals in that market. Both AM sides were “daytimers,” stations that went off the air at sundown; KFBD, however, had an FM station as well, that had broadcast until 11 pm. I talked the management into letting me do an overnight show, under a nom-de-radio. All they’d have to pay for would be electricity and my minimum wage—I offered to sell advertising for it.

As “Pete Leonard,” my voice went out from 11 pm to 2 am, playing Christian rock—a format unknown in 1980 even in the Bible Belt– and talking about the music I’d just played or had cued up. All the music I aired was from my own personal collection, kept in a crate in the studio’s corner. I’d usually get in 30 minutes early to hang out with Skip Goforth, the evening disc jockey, who may still be at KFBD for all I know. Skip did a straightforward rock show, heavy on REO Speedwagon, Van Halen, Ted Nugent and live Bob Seger. The transition from “Cat Scratch Fever” to “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was never seamless, but Skip was a kind man, and listened with patience as I nattered on about my life.

So, Army journalist by day, disc jockey by night, I still had time in the evening. One of the stories I’d plugged on my day job was auditions for The Fort Leonard Wood Players, the post theater company. Being blessed with an ability to memorize lines and not walk into furniture, I auditioned for a play called The Public Eye, a comedy written early in his career by Peter Shaffer, who would go on to write Equus and Amadeus. At 21, I was cast to play a stuffy middle-aged British accountant, Charles, married to a free-spirited woman, Belinda, half his age and beginning to chafe at Charles’ “dead insides.” My casting is no testament to any acting ability, but to the shallowness of the pool in which I was swimming.  Still, I now had a way to fill my evenings.

And then the magic started.

Belinda was played by a 27-year-old officer’s wife, whose name, for here, is Madeline. Through the month or so of rehearsals, Madeline and I grew close, sharing a similar sense of humor and an eye for the absurd. Although I was smitten, Madeline was married—and six months pregnant with her first child—so I felt safe in flirting. After all, she had both matrimonial and maternal fences around her.

In any scripted stage play my acting would rate an A for effort, but a C- for talent, particularly since I was inhabiting the role of a man more than twice my age. (I didn’t so much live in it as pull it on myself like a child with a bearskin rug.) Additionally, my Eastern smartassery in line delivery stood in contrast to my character’s British reserve. Madeline, on the other hand, seemed born to the role of a 23-year-old Bohemian, a manic pixie dream girl.

(Except for her being seven years older than I. Except for her being married. Except, oh yes, for her pregnancy.)

As I was saying, Madeline was perfect for the part—both on-stage and in my life. Out of courtesy to Madeline and her husband, who are still married, let me yadda yadda yadda for a bit, and just say that on opening night, backstage and slightly silly from white wine, I looked into Madeline’s eyes and said three words:

“Gosh, you’re pretty.”

Further yadda-ing.

In love with Madeline, I gave up any fleeting and ill-considered thoughts of reenlisting in the Army to go to language school in Monterey, California. Instead, I rented a small cabin on the banks of the Big Piney River in Devils Elbow. There, I would write a novel about my love for Madeline, tentatively called The Strangest Goddamned Story in the World .

In July I was discharged and turned my part-time disk jockey job into a full-time news director and talk-show host gig at KFBD (“B-98—The Rhythm of the Midwest” read the bumper stickers), spending my early mornings at the radio station, my days with Madeline, and my evenings putatively working on my novel. (In the previous sentence, the word “putatively” can also be translated as “displaying zero evidence of.”) Madeline had her baby, we continued to be together, and I think her husband thought of me as “Madeline’s gay friend.” After all, we’d met on stage, and what more evidence could he need?

Devils Elbow shimmered with magic that summer. I covered the Carter-Reagan campaign, traveling Missouri to listen to third-rate surrogates. I starred in a production of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, again remembering lines and avoiding furniture. Mostly, though, it was Madeline I cared about, Madeline I dreamed about and Madeline with whom I dreamed a future.

By the end of the summer, we were inseparable, and I assumed she would leave her husband for me. After all, he was just a successful Army officer, while I was a kid who blathered on a dying, even at that time, medium, had nothing but a high school diploma and had demonstrated an ability to perform in community theater. What wasn’t there to love?

A lot, as it turned out.

Madeline chose wisely and stayed with her husband. I packed up my possessions in an Army duffel bag, and hitchhiked to New Hampshire. Really. Ronald Reagan won the election in November and I used my GI Bill benefits to start college in January. Still, I thought of Devils Elbow as a place where dreams can come true, even if they didn’t. A town where beans can grow into apple trees, even if they didn’t. A spot on this planet where love can overcome any kind of common sense. Even. If. It. Didn’t.

  • – –

The title above declares “Magic is a Time and Not a Place.” I’ve talked about the summer of Madeline in Devils Elbow. Even when she stayed with her husband, I assumed Devils Elbow contained some kind of magic. I assumed wrong. Less than two years after I’d left Missouri—and Madeline and her husband had resumed their lives elsewhere—thanks to the University of New Hampshire’s leniency in accepting transfer credits and CLEP test scores from veterans, I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, accepted into graduate school in the fall of 1982. Wanting to taste magic one more time, I hitchhiked back to Missouri, a hand-painted sign reading EAST on one side and WEST on the other. As soon as I arrived in Devils Elbow, though, and had unpacked my duffel bag in a friend’s living room, I was ready to leave. Like a vacationer discovering the seaside cottage she’s rented has had its ocean relocated, I knew there was nothing for me there. Gone, gone, gone was the magic that had scented the air two years before. Devils Elbow was just another town on the Big Piney River. The cabin I’d lived in, built in the 40’s when Route 66 ran through town, and where Madeline and I had spent the summer, was just another building. I turned my hitchhiking sign around and headed back to Durham.

If I wanted magic, I couldn’t use an atlas. I needed an hourglass.

 

 

Unusual Bait, Unusual Fish: Non-Profit Jobs I Didn’t Know Existed

The results are starting to come in from my column the other day, my open letter to the universe about what job I should seek when it’s time to move on from here. With my bumbling short-term focus, I somehow failed to recognize this would lead to unorthodox job suggestions. It turns out a number of, ahem, unusual people read my work and have sent me information on under-the-radar nonprofits seeking an executive director.

While I’m fascinated by the breadth and shallowness of these groups, I don’t think I’d be a good fit with any. Still, the person who connects me with my next job will get homemade cookies and a sonnet written for them, so please keep those suggestions coming, just not quite ones like these.

NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of the Color Purple)

IBM (Big Blue) and Big Red (the soft drink NOT the gum) teamed up to form this nonprofit to encourage the use of purple in signage, packaging and tattoos. The executive director is expected to emulate Purple (nee Violet) Beauregard from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and color himself appropriately.

ETS (Educational Texting Service)

Although technically a nonprofit registered on an Indian-Ocean Island, ETS makes significant profits off the sales of high-school and college cheating software on both Google Play and Apple’s App Store. ETS uses provisions in PL 94-142 (The Education for All Handicapped Children Act) to encourage helicopter parents to include use of expensive “supportive educational technology” in their children’s IEP’s. Parents then text answers to any and all test questions. ETS is looking for a front man, who can talk the education talk while the rest of the corporation sunbathes in the Seychelles.

Habitant for Humanity

“Canadian Soup for the Masses” is the tagline for this nonprofit, which tries to spread the gospel of green-pea soup in the French-Canadian style. Since the Habitant Company was purchased by Campbell, and sucked into the watery dregs of Big Soup, Habitant for Humanity has encouraged local soup production throughout Quebec, offering grants to organic stew farmers and broth builders.

Sienna Club—Raw and Burnt Aren’t the Same!

The Sienna Club devotes itself to educating the artistic community, crayon consumers and the general public on the differences between raw sienna (yellow-brown) and burnt sienna (red-brown).The organization claims, with no evidence, a failure to make this distinction has led to a number of deaths worldwide through misplacement on color-by-number paintings.

American Red Crops

A nationwide consortium of farmers, American Red Crops brings together growers of radishes, strawberries, rhubarb and SOME apples. In recent years, resentments and color blindness have led to a number of splinter organizations, e.g.: Crimson Collaborative, Rose Rooting Society, Scarlet Society, etc. Luckily, when fisticuffs are involved, the bloodbath falls under the umbrella of the parent group.

Doctors without Boulders

A joint effort between the American Medical Association and the Alabama Department of Corrections, Doctors without Boulders matches medical professionals in need of extreme landscaping with prisoners on chain gangs. Prisoners break down rocks on the physician’s property in exchange for . . . well . . . nothing really.

 

Older than Kitty Carlisle, But the Same Age as the Barefoot Madonna

Crushes came easily to me as a boy. Unfortunately for me, I was exclusively a generator and never the recipient. To be fair to all the girls I knew, I was always the shortest boy in class, but made up for it by being loud, disruptive and, although I was occasionally amusing, offensive, having been gifted with an EZ-Flow oral filter at birth, so that “unuttered thought” was an oxymoron to me. Still, I would have enjoyed one girl having a crush on me. To my knowledge, it never happened. Instead, in addition to unuttered real-life crushes on girls in my elementary-school classes (hello Beth Austin and Tracey Thompson), I developed serious celebrity crushes. Like my behavior, these attractions were strange and inexplicable. My first real crush came when I was six and I fell hard for an older woman. Much older and much woman. Although I’ve been in therapy for years, I’ve yet to uncover the reasons for my attraction to that first crush, except that she starred on television. (Not to disappoint, but in the previous sentence “starred on television” could also be written as “was a panelist on a game show.”) My first crush was on Kitty Carlisle, a regular on a To Tell the Truth, a program that would take longer to explain than I have space. Suffice to say, to little Keith she was the height of sophistication and elegance. She was also in her mid-fifties when she captured my heart. One of many strange memories of my childhood is pretending a block of wood was a walkie-talkie and that I was communicating with Kitty. The memory does not include audio, so I have no idea what I was saying to an old lady who, before I discovered her had been in Marx Brothers movies, although the smart money would be on protestations of love.

Hard to believe no little girl developed a crush on a boy who was in love with a woman his grandmother’s age.

Shortly after this, I developed a stronger, more lasting and, slightly, more age-appropriate celebrity crush. Oh, and even stranger, according to everyone to whom I’ve ever revealed this. You may not know this, but at one time the morning Today news show starred Hugh Downs, Joe Garagiola and the love of my elementary-school life, Barbara Walters, the intelligent newscaster and interviewer who stole my heart.

Born in 1929, Barbara looked into the camera and smiled at me as I ate my before-school Cheerios each morning. Even 10 years later, when her speech patterns were being mocked on Saturday Night Live, and I had real-life girlfriends, I still defended Barbara. If she’s still alive, and single . . . well, you know.

Hard to believe no little girl developed a crush on a boy who was in love with a woman his mother’s age.

Since I’m going down in years, beginning with a woman my grandmother’s age, then one my mother’s, the writer in me would like to finish this piece by revealing I had a celebrity crush as a boy on a girl my own age. Unfortunately, my desire to be honest has overcome that urge, and I’ll confess I was never attracted to TV girls, perhaps because I had so many classmates prepared to reject me. Or because television didn’t have elementary-school girls as actresses in the mid-sixties. Or because I dreamed of growing up and getting older.

But not this old. I just realized I’m older now than Kitty Carlisle was when I talked with her on a block of wood. That’s not older than dirt, but it’s older than a lot of trees.

Postscript

Read this only if you want a better understanding of how my mind works, how my writing process works, or if you really, really want to learn more about how shy I am around women. You’ve been warned.

I jot down ideas for columns all the time. Among the titles/notes/drafts on my computer desktop are:

Magic is a Time and Not a Place and Can’t Tell the Salt from the Wound and In Hopes that He May Peak Again and Cowards Stay and Face the Consequences.

The piece above, did NOT begin as “Older than Kitty Carlisle.” It didn’t start off as “Kitty, Barbara and Me: A Love Story.” The note was not “How Did I Get So Old?” It began as “Carol Tillock and the Fish out of Holy Water.” Readers of earlier columns (e.g., here) and novels (Cult of One), and one suspects the FBI from their investigation to grant me a Secret Security Clearance, know I tried to convince the lovely, charming and intelligent 12-year-old Carol into going to a junior-high dance with me by holding a live sea minnow over my mouth and saying, “Carol, if you won’t go to the dance, this fish is a goner.” Even those unfamiliar with the story, can guess the outcome.

Carol apparently cared more about her self respect than the life of a minnow.

I’ve had a crush on Carol for more than 45 years, a crush on a girl/teen/woman who has spoken, maybe, 200 words to me in that time, and many of those were along the lines of:

“You’re disgusting!” or “Stop being so immature.” or “What’s wrong with you?” or, most commonly,  “Go away!”

Needless to say, these were appropriately spoken,  befitting my jackassery. My intended role, prior to Carol’s words, was that of the mysterious paramour about whom my intended would be driven to learn more. My actual part was of weird creep or, if I was lucky, creepy weirdo.

What I’ve never told before is how I risked eternal damnation (or at least shocked looks in a Catholic church) to get her attention. Carol was and is Catholic, as was and probably is my childhood friend, John Warnke. (Another note on my desktop is “Colonel Warnke and Iced Beer,” a rough draft about John’s dad, a paraplegic who was paralyzed in a Jeep accident in Jordan. He was a true American hero who deserves better than I will provide him.) I was not, am not and, really, never was a Catholic. (For an undergraduate education class on learning theory, I had to practice metacognition by learning how I learned about something new. I went through adult catechism at the Durham Catholic Church. It didn’t take.)

John and I were good friends in junior high, and did a lot of things together. Boy Scouts (until I got kicked out for throwing up. More honestly, I got thrown out for throwing up on the back of the boy in front of me. Most honestly, I got thrown out for throwing up on the back of the boy in front of me because I swallowed the stolen chewing tobacco I was trying to impress my fellow scouts with before the meeting.), riding go-carts of various design (I still have scars on the back of my left hand from one disastrous run) and talking about the girls with whom we were in love. As I recall, John was smitten by Cindy Bechtell, and I do hope I haven’t broken some pre-adolescent blood oath by revealing it here. I, of course, spoke only of Carol, about whom I honestly knew next to nothing except that she was pretty and smart and demonstrated good taste in her disdain for me.

One thing John and I didn’t typically do together, for obvious reasons, was go to catechism, the training young Catholics go through before, as I understand it, Bar Mitzvahs, Rumspringa, Quinceanera or First Communion. John was sincere in his faith, and wanted to share it with me by taking me to catechism—or else my mom couldn’t pick me up on time and Mrs. Warnke dropped me off at church with him. Either way, once I learned Carol was in his Catholic class, I was  excited.

In my admittedly faulty memory, the young postulants (?), communicants (?), supplicants (?) were gathered at the front of the church, Carol absolutely stunning in t-shirt and jeans, eyes rolling once she saw “that little weirdo” walk in with John. The font of Holy Water sat right inside the sanctuary, and John dipped his fingers in it and made the sign-of-the-lower-case-T, as he’d doubtless done hundreds of times before.

Here, I had a choice to make. If I touched the water and wasn’t supposed to, I could imagine the rapid intake of breath from all my Roman Catholic schoolmates as they imagined my shriveled soul sucked from my body. On the other hand, if I walked into the church without blessing myself, I would be thumbing my nose at God and Carol Tillock. Luckily, a third option—the worst of all—presented itself to me, and before I really knew why or what I was doing, I impersonated Frankenstein’s monster and walked into the font, knocking the Holy Water to the ground. John stared at me as though I’d exposed myself, and I suppose I had, exposed myself as a heathen.

“That water had to be brought in from the Jordan River,” he whispered to me, a misstatement, but one that carried more fear than the truth. I didn’t know much about air-freight prices, but assumed it must be expensive to fill planes with water in the Middle East and fly them to churches around the world. Had John told me Holy Water was plain old Durham town water blessed by a priest, I would have assumed this blessing didn’t require a lot of preparation, and the parish priest could even take a stroll over to the Durham reservoir and turn every bathtub in town into a Holy Water font.

Having only John’s explanation, I feared I’d just bankrupted the Durham Catholic Church, which I pictured as a Double-A farm team, with one priest being groomed for better things in the future and another few ecclesiastics who’d end up throwing batting practice at a roadside shrine. Perhaps word of my sin and its financial cost would go all the way to the Major League of Faith and the Pope would come looking for me.

Mostly, though, I thought about Carol Tillock, and how she wouldn’t go to a dance with a boy who’d murdered a fish out of love. Now that I’d bankrupted her church, committed a very, very bad—if not quite mortal—sin, and let loose the beast of my jackassery, she’d never talk to me again. There, I was wrong.

She did talk to me again. She said, “Go away” and “What’s wrong with you?” and . . .

Post Postscript

I realize I’ve said a few times that Carol Tillock was intelligent and charming and lovely, demonstrating one of the worst writing habits one can fall into: telling rather than showing. In other words, where is the evidence?

Carol went from Oyster River High School to Yale. While she was entering her freshman year, by contrast, I was completing basic training at Fort Knox. From Yale, she went directly, I think, to Stanford Business School—I was working as a radio disk jockey and newsman. Since her graduation from Stanford, to my knowledge, she has become a barefoot Madonna, wandering the hills in California, brightening the lives of the downtrodden with her beatific and yet come-hither smile. I’ve got Facebook documentation for Yale and Stanford—the barefoot Madonna piece is just the logical conclusion to the vision of beauty that was Carol Tillock. In short, Carol  has been transformed into an even brainier Joan Baez, and I’ve remained one of Bob Dylan’s dumbass kid brothers.

I live in the Great North Woods in a Tiny White Box. I haven’t killed a fish or knocked over a font in a long time. I don’t seek forgiveness or conciliation, although I would not refuse either were it offered. Until then, though, I’ll walk through the forest, a block of wood held to my ear:

“Carol, have I told you lately how beautiful and smart you are? And have you seen Barbara Walters on the view? She’s lovely, but nowhere near as pretty as you . . Hold on, I’ve got a call from Kitty on the other line. . . .”

An Unorthodox Man’s Unorthodox Job Search

As you look over this open letter to the universe, remember you’re part of the ever-evolving and sometimes-improving Tupperware bowl of existence we call the universe. If you know of a job that fits this request, you’ll be helping yourself by helping the universe help me. Also, I’ll write you a sonnet or bake you cookies if this works.  Really and for true.  Contact me at keithhoward@gmail.com with Cookies and Sonnets in the subject line. Or choose your own subject line. Or leave it blank. Just make contact.

Dear Universe,

It’s about time for me to determine the next step in my improbable life. Not time to take the step, mind you. Not time even to pick up my things and sort them out before loading my backpack. Still, it’s time for me to lick my finger, put it in the air to see where the wind’s blowing. Universe, you’ve been way better to me than I’ve been to you (although you did notice, yes, that since I

 got sober I’ve stopped throwing things out my car window? Who’d have thought active alcoholism and litter-buggery would be co-incident afflictions?), so what follows is not a list of demands, for goodness’ sake. It’s like a child’s letter to Santa Claus, if the letter were written by a well-reared little boy who’ll be thankful with whatever appears under the tree Christmas morning—although the gratitude will be magnified if one of those items is a combination magic/chemistry set with directions on making potions.

Sitting inside the Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods in the middle of March, a heavy but beautiful snow falling outside, with Bruce Cockburn’s Inner City Front blasting through the speakers, here are some of the things I may want for this next installment. Still, universe, 

I know you’ve chosen wisely so far, so I’ll leave it in your imaginary hands.

(Yes, in the previous sentence the phrase “chosen wisely” can be translated as “blindly followed a mechanistic path of cause and effect with a soupcon of randomness thrown in.” If I want to anthropomorphize existence as a wise helper who probably knows best, and use it as a Higher Power, I damned well will, especially since I’ve managed to stay away from a drink or a drug for more than 10 years now!) 

(I apologize for the hair-on-the-back-of-my-neck-standing-up tone within those last parentheses. I usually manage to synthesize that bile into something more productive.)

(Last aside, before returning to my letter to the universe: Synthesized Bile is a great band. I saw them open for Manfred Mann and Gentle Giant in Amsterdam.)

SO, back to my dream list of things I’m looking for in a next phase.

  • I’d like a job, not just for the money, but because this time away has shown me how much I like interacting with other people, and, even, how good I am at it.
  • I’m looking for a job running a small- to medium-size nonprofit. It should have growth possibilities, perhaps a recently-faced crisis/scandal, and limited current support with future possibilities.
  • I’d like it to have a board of directors that’s open to creativity, honesty and a new way of looking at things.
  • Money is not all that important, although the possibility of future increases is a plus.
  • Benefits I’d like are relocation assistance, a company car and vacation time, although like everything else, these are negotiable
  • I’d like to be the face of the organization, the leader and a staff member; interactions with the population served is absolutely necessary.
  • Among those populations could be:
    1. Veterans
    2. Drug and alcohol dependent folks
    3. Recently released prisoners
    4. Sex offenders
    5. Homeless people
  • Geographically, I’d like it to be near at least a mid-sized (200,000 +) city. Other than that, rural or urban doesn’t really matter.
  • Among the states I’m interested in are:Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arizona, New Mexico, California and New Hampshire
    1. Hawaii, which gets its own letter just because
  • Many foreign countries as long as they come with language training
  • I’d like it to be a drug- and alcohol-free setting.

As with my childhood letters to Santa Claus, I reserve the right to amend or, more likely, add to this list. I trust you, universe, to know what’s best for me, or at least what’s most interesting. You’ve done a great job for a long time—those growing pains after the Big Bang notwithstanding—and I know you’ll give me what I need, even if I don’t know I want it. Do keep in touch.

Your Friend,

Keith

Remember, help the universe do its work, and you’ll get a sonnet or cookies—and the knowledge the universe is a little bit better place.

In Praise of Beverly Cleary

I was not an evil child, but I was wicked, a distinction that matters. Evil identifies the good and sets out to destroy it. Wicked people raise the bet without knowing what’s at stake. Evil requires focus and determination, while wickedness results from boredom and distraction. Evil descends and leaves no survivors, while wickedness drifts in and disrupts. Today, I don’t think I’m either, but who can tell for sure?

As a little boy, I found little evil around me. In fact, Durham, NH, in the 1960’s may well have been ur-America—the archetype for Making America Great Again. Without wanting to turn this into a theological brief, I am thankful for that evil drought, for a taste for wickedness got me into plenty of trouble as it was.

(A brief aside: it strikes me that Durham, as a college campus, was the site of various protests against the war in Vietnam. My vision of peace, decency and America may not have been the experience of parents who sent their children to college at the University of New Hampshire and had them come home as radicals. Those mothers and fathers may well have viewed Durham as Satan’s Saucepan. On the other hand, my personal vision of our country’s best includes people protesting injustice, war and other crummy stuff, so I’ll stand by my take.)

Although I was wicked, I was drawn to mundanity in the books I read, the literature that mirrored the normal life that surrounded me. (Another brief aside that undercuts my argument but must, in the interest of truth, be said: the normal neighborhood I lived in and played kick-the-can in had a neighboring husband and wife making out in a car in the garage while I endeavored to kick that can and free the prisoners. “Normal” is what’s normal to you, I suppose.) While I was disrupting my second, third and fourth grade classrooms with frustratingly disruptive and subversive behaviors, I was also going to the town library at least once a week to fill up my book bag with literature.  In the last sentence, I used the word “subversive,” which sounds as though I were a member of a Communist cell or part of the Elementary School Wing of the Students for a Democratic Society.  I wasn’t, although had either the American Communist Party or the SDS recruited me I would have been open to an offer.  Instead, I was trying to subvert the order of the classroom, planting ladyfinger firecrackers at the nexus of authority and boredom.  I just liked to watch the fur fly, honestly.  But not in my reading. There, I cuddled up with normal normal, not just normal to me..

At the ages of six to nine, I was not reading the Little Golden Anarchist’s Cookbook or Winnie the Pooh and the Days of Rage. Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book wouldn’t be written for a few more years, although as soon as it was it became my favorite reading.

Little Keith read Doctor Doolittle,Homer Price and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  My favorites, though, were about Henry Huggins and his dog, Ribsy..  I read about going fishing with Mr. Huggins for Chinook salmon, an exotic breed I pictured about the size of a golden retriever.  These books were written by Beverly Cleary, set in Oregon, and captured an order I could have lived with.  Each book had eight or 10 chapters, an overarching goal (get a dog, hold down a paper route, build a clubhouse) and a series of compelling/amusing stories—anecdotes, really—to move the reader along to the end.

Henry Huggins was an only child, but he had friends, of course, including a girl named Beatrice Quimbywhose younger sister, Ramona, had mangled her name into Beezus, which had stuck. Beezus’ life was even more normal than Henry’s, if only because she had an annoying little sister, just like me. Later, when I’d moved on from Henry and Beezus, Ramona went on to star in a series of books, which are, honestly, more interesting and better than the ones I grew up on.

Beverly Cleary created a world where goals were set, plans were made and achievements were accomplished. I lived in my own world, where boredom loomed around every corner and had to be destroyed by any means necessary, another symptom of wickedness. Henry, Beezus and Ramona were, to all appearances, as normal as the kids in my neighborhood, and I couldn’t imagine Mrs. Huggins making out with Mr. Quimby. That would have seemed evil to me.

Even if it would just have been wicked.

AFTERWARD

If you’ve read this far you must be a serious Beverly Cleary fan, perhaps one who grew up in Valley Stream, which has always sounded to me like a setting for a Bobbsey Twin book, or a vacation spot for the Huggins. I hope you are well and know I think of you often and always fondly.

If you’ve read THIS far, and didn’t grow up in Valley Stream, you’re probably hoping for news of a sequel to The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I don’t have such news, but Ms. Cleary is only 101 years old, so she may be working on it now.  Next month you can wish her a happy 102nd birthday. You could look it up!

America is NOT The Wasteland, Although I Can Be a Hollow Man

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

“The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot

Donald Trump has done a lot of dumb things, a lot of crass things, a lot of cruel things and a lot of dishonest things.  Still, despite cries from my liberal friends, he is not a tyrant-in-training (although that may be his fantasy), nor is he wreaking vengeance against his enemies. I don’t think he’s been a good president so far, but he’s not evil. America is not the Wasteland. The universe just reminded me of that. Let me explain.

I like Turkish coffee, the bitterness burning my tongue and the caffeine kicking me in the gut. A few nights ago, I had a great dinner in a Turkish restaurant, Matbah Mediterranean Cuisine in Manchester. My friend and I finished with baklava and coffee. Turkish coffee, in my mind, is served in an espresso cup. This was. Turkish coffee, in my mind, is made with finely-ground, almost dust-like, high-quality coffee, brought to a boil and allowed to sit for a few minutes to let the grounds settle. This was. Turkish coffee, in my mind, is served plain, with no sugar or cream. This wasn’t. It came w

ith sugar in it.

Having a form of charm that lasts for the length of a meal, and not much longer, I’d developed a bond with the waitress, who wasn’t, by all appearances, Turkish herself. At least her name was Autumn, which I don’t think traces itself back to the Ottoman Empire. I asked Autumn why the coffee was sweet, and she answered, obviously, because that’s how they serve it. Not content to simply drink the sugary drink, or ask for another, unsweetened cup, I went into a bit about doubting the Turkish nature of the restaurant, declaring Turkish coffee properly served black and bitter, then asked to speak with the manager.

(A brief aside here. I’ve since learned, by a simple Google search, that I was flat-out wrong about the subject. Turkish coffee is often sweetened, with the sugar added during the preparation process rather than at table. In short, I was being a horse’s ass, and joking about things that I wasn’t qualified to question.)

 

Omar Yasin, the owner of Matbah, came to our table. When he saw me, he recognized me from the Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner back in November. The center had given me an award, and I’d uttered a few words. Omar sat down with us, and I began by talking about coffee, Turkish coffee to be exact. Omar said he didn’t take sugar in his coffee either, but that most Americans seem to prefer it. The takeaway from this is that Omar was gracious enough not to tell me I resembled the hind end of a horse, or declare he might be better-suited to explain and define the coffee of his homeland than I. He didn’t. He was a gentleman.

The conversation then turned to how he’d come to this country with his wife and two children a little over a year ago. They’d fled Turkey because of the oppression under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current Turkish President. I am far from a Turkey expert—hell, I don’t even know how coffee is properly made—but I do know Erdoğan used a failed coup to consolidate power as a “strong man.” Omar spoke of the Turkish president being a bad and dangerous man,

 

Here, I put on the coat of smugness that fits me so well, and replied glibly, “We’re beginning to see a bit of that her ourselves.”

“No,” replied Omar. “You’re not. Donald Trump is no Erdoğan. Not yet.”

Period. Game over. Cue the shame to pour over my head.

Omar Yasin fled his homeland in the middle of the night. Omar Yasin brought his wife and two children to a new and unknown land because Turkey was no longer safe for any of them. Omar Yasin still has friends and family under the bloody thumb of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, human beings who could be imprisoned or worse at any time.

I tried to make a claim of moral equivalency.

I was a hollow man at that moment.

 

 

Wisdom from the Catacombs

Church sanctuaries held wisdom for me as a boy. It may have been wisdom I didn’t understand, and certainly couldn’t apply to my life, but when I went into the sanctuary of the Durham Community Church, I assumed the Reverend Novotny had a pathway to God and therefore some genuine wisdom.

As I grew older, became a Baptist lay person and then a Baptist minister, I found the sanctuary to be more of a stage and less of a font of knowledge. In the words of the non-King Martin Luther, “Sola scriptura” was my watchword—it’s all in the Book, Buddy. The Bible held the wisdom.

Later, I left the church, and while I still like the Gospels and the Minor Prophets, the wisdom I find in the Bible is in Ecclesiastes. Short, pithy thoughts that help me understand the human predicament. Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, as Hobbes would have it, and that brief essay by Solomon as an old man sums it up pretty well. It does a great job of diagnosing our condition; not so much for treating it.

Today, I spend more time in churches than I did as a boy or as a minister, although now I’m in church basements more than sanctuaries. Finally, in those small basement rooms I’ve found the wisdom I’d suspected the building held. No, I don’t hang out with discarded crucifixes, portraits of Protestant bigwigs from long ago or aged Torah scrolls. Instead, like the Christians in the catacombs, I gather with other fallen people who are trying to recover their lives. Luckily, these fellow sufferers are carriers of wisdom, always pithy and sometimes funny. Over the years, I’ve collected some of that wisdom, and would like to offer it now. I don’t remember who said what when or why, but below is some true wisdom, at least as this drunk sees it:

The means aren’t justified by the ends. The means are the ends.

The idea is always to narrow the gap between what we believe and the way we live.

We can rise above our past and make a difference, or we can allow ourselves to be controlled by the past and make excuses.

Yes, you can change the world.  The way you do it is by changing yourself.

If you want to change who you are, change what you do.

If you want to quit drinking, you are going to have to quit drinking.
When I was new, I didn’t think I had any obsessions until I started thinking about it. Then it was all I could think about.
All we ask is that you completely change your attitude as soon as possible.

Quitting was easy. Staying quit was impossible.

I thought you were normal until I got to know you.

Nobody comes here on a winning streak.

Alcohol was my anti-me solution.

If I could drink like a normal person, I’d be drunk all the time.

My basic problem is me.

I’m not responsible for my disease, but I am responsible for my behavior.

I run from those who want me and I pursue the rejecters.

No longer can we be content with “good enough.”

What other people think of me is none of my business.

I am one drink away from never being sober again.

Most of my life was a reaction to a reaction.

When things go wrong, I don’t have to go with them.

I’m just another Bozo on the bus.

I’m not here because I drank a lot. I’m here because I drank too much.

I kept on “starting over” but I never changed a thing.

When I’m drunk and things go my way, I throw a tantrum.

I violated my standards faster than I could lower them.