Chess, Boxing, Numbers and Philosophy, Who Could Ask for Anything More?

Imagine a boxer, call him Marvelous Mark Roth, who weighs 125 pounds, placing him in the featherweight division.  Marvy, as his friends know him, trains incessantly, preparing himself in every way that he can, so that he can someday live out his dream and be a Golden Gloves champion.

After years of training, Marvy finally finds himself slated to fight Friday night at the Pugilistic Palace.  His opponent?  Bruising Brad Hocker, who weighs in at 249 muscular pounds.  Testosterone flows through Bruising Brad’s veins, but his training has drained him of mercy.

No matter how big Marvelous Mark’s heart, he will lose.  Badly.

And may never think again.

Of course, this would never happen, for the world of boxing, being an outpost of rational thought and human sensitivity, recognizes that the playing field must be equal for both opponents in a match.  Likewise, schoolgirl and schoolboy sports recognize that schools must be similar in size if they are to be evenly matched on the playing field.  Drawing from its two thousand students, for example, Metropolis High School is likely to field a better team of twelve basketball-playing girls than is Smallville, with its student body of 113.  This is not always the case, for look at the example of the Indiana Boys High School team on which the movie Hoosiers is based.  This counter-example, of course, helps to prove the rule, for it goes against all the evidence of logic and history.

Name me a tear-jerking movie about Goliath.

To switch from the athletic to the intellectual, let us consider the example of chess.  Imagine that all of the high school students in the greater Northeast region (i.e., New England, New York and New Jersey), about two-million adolescents, are taught the basics of the game of chess (e.g., pawns can only move one move forward, except for attacking diagonally, etc.)  Assume also that an X-factor for potential chess-playing ability exists and is randomly distributed throughout this population.

(Brief Digression: this notion of random distribution has led to any number of crazy ideas. Much of the universe is not subject to standard distribution. As a perhaps too-facile example, consider the number of legs on human beings. I thank my higher power daily that I have more than the average number of human legs. If you question this, consider: most humans are born with two legs; some are born with one or none; some lose their legs through accident or amputation—this brings the average number of human legs to less than two; to my knowledge, no humans have more than two legs. Therefore, given my two-legged status, I have more than the average. End of digression. For now.)

To briefly review basic statistics, this standard distribution of the X-factor would, if the chessians played each other over and over and over and over, yield results such that we’d eventually have a top two percent with about 40,000 potential future grandmasters. We’d also have a bottom two percent of about 40,00 players, whose skills would rival the Sunnydale Nursing Home Chess Team after they’ve had their medication, but before their naps.

Leaving aside the fates of the best 1,960,000 high school chess players in the Northeast, let us focus on the bottom two percent, those 40,000 who played the worst in the regional tournament.  If those players were to organize a separate tournament among themselves, following the same format outlined above, eventually we would find that they had formed themselves into a bell curve, except that this time the bottom two percent would contain only 800 players.

Likewise, these 800 players, playing only among themselves, would eventually break down into the 16 worst players in the entire population of high school students in the Northeast.  Say that this bottom two percent of the bottom two percent of the bottom two percent of the chess players in the region were to organize a tournament among themselves.  Eventually, one could rank-order these chess players from best (of the 16 worst players in the entire northeast corridor) to absolute worst.

Thought Experiment I:  Would the winner of this tournament of the bottom of the bottom of the bottom have any less reason to be proud of her accomplishment than the winner of a similar tournament held among the top 16 players in the region?  Would she have less reason to be proud of her accomplishment than the last-place finisher in the top bracket of tournament?  Explain.

Thought Experiment II: Would the bottom player of the two million players in the northeast region of the United States have cause to be proud for being the absolute worst player among two million?

Thought Experiment III: If I spotted him a pawn and let him have white, do you think I could beat him?


Looking into, Not Looking through a Man: Life as an Invisible

When you see my face on this site or in person, it’s typically an open, nice-enough face. Oh, it may not have matinee-idol written all over it, but my face is not unpleasant or disturbing. In short, I like my face just fine.

That face has been looked into with love, which is nice. That face has been looked into with anger, which is either intimidating or amusing, depending on the circumstances. That face has been kissed and punched and slapped and stroked. It has been regarded.

My face has also been looked through, been disregarded, been invisiblized . When I was broke and unshaven and dirty, most folks didn’t look at me, they looked through me, as if I didn’t exist, as if I weren’t there, as though I weren’t a man who’d loved and cried and laughed. When my teeth had fallen out, when I was living on the street, when all I wanted was a drink to stop my shaking, the mass of humanity ignored me.

Being ignored is better than being beaten up. On balance. Still, if someone’s pushing you down or punching you, they’re acknowledging your existence. A someone doesn’t beat up a nothing, after all. I suffer, therefore I am, as a Cartesian might rewrite the dictum. Ego pati ergo sum, as it were.

Disregarded long enough, a man questions his existence. Disregarded long enough, a man hates himself. Disregarded long enough, a man stops acting like a man, forgets he is a man, loses sight of his human nature.

Goddammit, pay attention to the people around you. Show regard for the fat ones, the smelly ones, the dumb ones, the ugly ones, the toothless ones, the pimply ones, the unshaven ones, the misshapen ones. Regard and respect those ones; don’t treat them like zeroes.

This rant is a response to a text I got this morning from a man I’ve known a while. James, I’ll call him, and I have never been close. James is standoffish in general and rather shy. Because he played lacrosse for Stanford 30 years ago, and is still six-three and 250 pounds, he can seem intimidating, but inside he feels a lot of insecurity. Although he never said so, I imagine he saw me as a mystical chucklehead, sort of a wizard/clown combination. Regardless, James and I have never been close. Still, we’ve always looked each other in the eye and tried to treat each other with respect.

A few days ago, James contacted me, saying he needed some help and support from a social-service agency with which I’m familiar. He asked me to intercede, make a phone introduction for him, so he wouldn’t feel awkward going in for help. I assured him that wasn’t necessary, he could go to the agency and they’d help him with a smile.

I was wrong.

From James’ text this morning: The staff was aloof and distant. They laughed when they talked with each other, but they lost their smiles when they talked at me. I left without the help I needed.

James was treated with disregard. James was treated as an object. James was treated like an annoyance.

Strike that last paragraph. James wasn’t treated like anything. James didn’t exist. James was invisible. James wasn’t really there.

James is homeless. James is an active alcoholic. James probably doesn’t smell great.

James is still a goddamned human being.

And so are the bureaucrats who looked through him this morning. I would like to call them out by name, call them out by agency, spread word of their casual cruelty far and wide.

But I won’t.

Instead, I wish them long lives and eternal existence following this life. Let those egotistical, superior, distant, aloof sonsofbitches never cease to exist, and let them prove their existence through the clown/wizard’s update of Descartes:

Ego pati ergo sum.

I suffer, therefore I am.

No Friendly Direction But Down—Six Feet Down: A Larissa Update

(Readers may remember my friend, Larissa, a charming, intelligent, pretty alcoholic just coming into the home stretch of that fatal disease. For those of you who are new to the story, I’ve compiled earlier passages of The Larissa Saga and placed them at the end of this column. Enough details have been changed to make her unrecognizable, but the pain and fear are left intact.)

Larissa is at the end of her rope—and wishes it were wrapped around her neck.

I had lunch with her a few days ago, then talked with her last night and again this morning. To update you, Larissa will lose her driver’s license next Monday—the result of last month’s DWI—she’s been “asked” to leave her home in Dublin, where her husband and two kids still live. Larry just couldn’t take the lying, the not coming home at night, the drunken fights—in short, he can’t take Larissa. And neither can her kids, which break’s Larissa’s heart so badly the only thing she can do is drink.

She’s found a room to rent in the Southwestern NH town she’s now working in, and is happy it’s only five miles from her new school. Of course, the teaching gig she landed is only until the end of the year—precipitated by a maternity leave—and she hasn’t told her principal about the DWI or loss of license. She has faith no one in town will Google her name and find out about her arrest, but faith gets shaky in the evening. She worries at night, worries so badly the only thing she can do is drink.

Her parents are both alive, and she feels they’re still in her corner. For now. When she asked if she could borrow $20,000 from them to “start over,” they turned her down, which gives her premonitions they might turn on her, leaving her alone. That alienation is terrifying, so upsetting the only thing she can do is drink.

Larissa accurately diagnoses her condition.

“I’m an alcoholic”.

“I’ve lied to everyone in my life, and they’ve all left me. All I’ve got left is my drinking buddies—and they’re all creeps. I guess I’m kind of a creep, too.”

“I can’t picture a world without drinking.”

“Sometimes I feel like the world would be better off without me. At least my kids would have my life insurance money to start them off right.”

Suicide. Offing yourself. Doing yourself in. That seemed like the only option to me 10 years ago, and that’s where Larissa is now. Each night she passes out with the hope she’ll die in her sleep, and when she wakes up in the morning with a foggy and throbbing head, shaky hands and a bellyful of dread, she asks for the courage to kill herself today. So far, thank God, she hasn’t found it.

(An aside: when stunning statistics are released about deaths from the opiate epidemic or alcohol poisoning, I assume they’re at least 20 percent low, because addicts and alcoholics at the end don’t typically leave suicide notes. They’ve long stopped communicating with anything but their drug of choice and their death of choice. If I’d had a gun for the last six months of my drinking I’d have splattered my brains all over a wall. No note left behind, just a momentary regret I didn’t have another couple drinks before pulling the trigger.)

Larissa’s world keeps getting smaller. It will shrink and shrink until she can’t turn around. That world will be big enough for Larissa and a box of wine. No matter how far apart we are, we breathe the same air. No matter how close we are, there is still air between us. No matter how tiny Larissa’s world gets, it will always have room for a box of wine. Or a bottle of mouthwash.

Sometimes sober and more often drunk, she calls me. (By the end stage of alcoholism, “sober” and “drunk” are mere approximations. The dedicated last-gasper has always got enough booze in her blood to blow hot in a breathalyzer. Seeming sober is just one of the gifts of alcoholism.)

Larissa knows I’ve been within hailing distance of her world, but left that desperate chaos behind. She knows by some completely unmerited act of grace I found a program of recovery still central to my existence. She knows my life today is the best I’ve ever had. She calls me and seems to want the magic word, the talisman, the secret of sobriety, but I don’t have any secret.

I didn’t drink. I cleaned house. I had a man I trusted who wouldn’t co-sign and notarize my bullshit. I met with other alcoholics every day for a long time, and now do so at least three or four times a week. I worked with newly sober people. I tried to follow a program of recovery.

Those aren’t secrets, for Christ’s sake. They saved my life, but they’re not magic words.

Oh, yes, one other thing.

I didn’t kill myself.

Please pray Larissa doesn’t kill herself, and does find a moment of vulnerability, a second of peace and a glimpse of clarity.

Recovery can work.

But not if you’re dead.

The Larissa Saga

February 18

Too Smart and Charming for Our Own Good

I just got off the phone with a dear, dear friend. Larissa is in her late 30’s, holds a graduate degree and works as a teacher, where she is seen by her students and peers as insightful, creative and a dynamite professional. Her classroom is always abuzz with excitement, and her students routinely say she’s the best educator they’ve ever had. Larissa has been married for 15 years, has a couple of great kids, and does volunteer work in her community, focusing on the elderly. In that, she is also highly valued and seen as near-saintly. She is smart and charming and any number of other adjectives.

One word in the previous paragraph is wrong, though, and must be amended. “Works as a teacher” is actually “worked as a teacher.” Friday, Larissa was fired from her teaching job—despite all her gifts—because Larissa is also a drunk, an alcoholic. There had been warning signs and written warnings, hand-wringing and hand-holding, pie-crust promises to change and repeated breakage of those pie crusts. Larissa has been to rehab three or four times, during the summer and during the school year. She’s stopped drinking plenty of times, but hasn’t figured out a way to stay stopped. Yesterday, Larissa’s students smelled stale alcohol on her breath, reported it to her principal, and she was fired. As she should have been.

As was I. Fourteen years ago, I was allowed to resign from one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, running an alternative high school program in a dynamic community with engaged kids. I just couldn’t control my drinking, couldn’t stop drinking, and couldn’t stop lying about my drinking. I was where Larissa is today, and it took me another three years of sinking before I finally found myself homeless. Then, I found my solution.

Talking with Larissa was like listening to tapes of me all those years ago.

“I never drank at school.”

(Although I drank enough almost every night to still be legally drunk when I drove into work.)

“Some people just metabolize alcohol in a smellier way than most.”

(Of course, some people just don’t drink, or don’t drink on work nights, or don’t drink enough to worry about metabolizing times.)

“Who are they to judge what I do on my own time?”

(Even if their concern is the ways what I do on my own time affects students, parents and co-workers.)

“I’m going to see a lawyer, because alcoholism is a disease. They wouldn’t fire me for having diabetes.”

(Unless I continued to take too much insulin or refused to eat so I was passing out in the classroom, acting shaky or confused or falling asleep regularly.)

“If it weren’t for my husband/kids/neighbors/parents/ad nauseum, I wouldn’t need to drink.”

(Although I would, because I’m an alcoholic, gifted at finding targets to drink at.)

“They’re jealous of what a good job I do, and how much the kids like me.”

(That may be, but they’re also worried about my judgement and decision making, impaired as I am by booze.)

Larissa will find another job. She’s insightful and gifted and attractive, and that’s what her references will say. They won’t say she’s a drunk. They won’t want to damage her opportunities because “She’s so great when she’s not drinking. If it weren’t for that . . .” Unfortunately, those ellipses never end without change, and that change doesn’t seem to come without work on our part.

No one ever passed on that truth about me, either. After all I was creative and energetic, if not attractive. From that lost job of mine, I eventually got a teaching job at a residential school, until I got fired from there, if not for drinking then for behavior brought on by drinking. Then I got a job as a clerk/salesman. Then I got homeless.

Larissa is cursed by good luck and bad genes. She’s got everything she needs to be successful—except for the ability to stay away from that first drink.

Larissa and I are both smart and charming, too goddamned smart and charming for our own good when it comes to booze. There, all the gifts and talents in the world won’t keep us sober, although they can keep us from getting sober.

(I’ll try to keep you posted on Larissa—I’m driving to see her tomorrow—but if I forget, please drop me an email to remind me.)

February 26

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 ( 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.

March 17

A Free-Association Scream (900 or so Words of Id-Driven Rage at Addiction Poured onto the Page without Editing or Re-Reading)

Larissa’s had another red-letter day/week/month with the same red-letteredness I brought on myself near the end of my drinking. Moving from mid- to end-stage alcoholism is distinguished by increasingly common losses (or throw-aways) and satisfaction with less and less and less in life. The border between the stages may come with the recognition that buying Sam Adams is a waste of money. Natty Daddy gives you what you want without all that taste and craftsmanship. (Or, in my case, Chardonnay is for suckers when Lavoris gets me drunk and gives me minty-fresh vomit. I quickly slid from brand-name mouthwash to Dollar Store generics, but that was less for aesthetic reasons than for its being easier to steal.)

This week, Larissa, who’s just started a new job—she’s charming and smart and pretty, in addition to being a nearing-end-stage alcoholic—wrecked two cars in one day, got her first DWI and has been asked to move out of her home. Like a child whistling as she walks past that house with the mean dog, Larissa tells me she’s got a plan for pulling things together. As she tells me about it, I taste the same “once-I’ve-jumped-over-the-canyon-and swum-the-Pacific” nonsense that had infected all my end-stage dreams, and I’d never faced the public and practical problems of holding down a job with no public transportation, no car and, oh yeah, no driver’s license.

After losing a second job for drunkenness or its aftermath, I quickly went through my tiny savings. (In the previous sentence, “savings” is a euphemism for “what remained in my checking account after I’d paid my rent and bought cigarettes and booze.”) When my girls got home from school, they had a chance to see the eviction notice on the door of our s-hole apartment in a section of Nashua just north of Dicey and west of Danger. Ah, memories. Feeling like a victim always, I assumed some deus ex machina would appear to rescue me. Didn’t happen. A week later, after the girls had packed up their things and taken them to their mom’s, I had a final night alone, alone except for a box of Chardonnay. I laid on the futon in the dark corner of the back room, cradling the wine except for when I lifted the spout up to my mouth. That box made me feel like a wealthy man indeed.

The next morning, homelessness felt like freedom. No more boss telling me what to do! No more wasting money on rent! Finally, I could drink the way I wanted to—desperately and self-destructively, just as God intended.

Larissa today is like a woman in a pool of freshly-poured Plaster of Paris. She can still move, although the cake-batter consistency around her presents a challenge. As time goes on, she’ll find life getting slowly but inexorably harder to control as the plaster hardens. The slow-motion thrashing she does will create a space for her inside that solid pool, until she’s as snug as a bug in amber, a bug with a taste for booze and little else.

If she’s like me (and most of the other drunks I’ve known), she’ll begin to think of suicide, or at least an end to her existence, going to sleep at night praying she won’t wake up. Warnings from friends and family will increase.

“If you don’t stop drinking,” they’ll say, “you’re going to die.”

Promises, promises. Promises that never come true.

Six months after our eviction, when I’d found a series of depths below the deep, I realized there was no “bottom” for this drunk to find until my body thumped onto the bottom of a casket. Luckily, instead of continuing to drop, I reached out for help from the VA and a program of recovery. Many (most?) (nearly all?) aren’t that lucky, burrowing deeper and deeper into despair, finding it harder and harder to find lower companions, creating ever-duller red-letter days/weeks/months.

Like Larissa.

Like Larissa, I continued to be charming, if charming means “manipulative and dishonest with no regard for how I affected others.” Like Larissa, I continued to be smart, is smart means “manipulative and dishonest with no regard for how I affected others.” Unlike Larissa, I was never pretty, but I’m afraid alcoholism doesn’t leave much beauty inside or out. In women in their forties, booze seems to dissolve their looks, first slowly and then completely.

By the end, I was amazed if not amused that it takes as much energy to be a semi-employable drunk with a taste for mouthwash as it did to direct alternative schools, run an improve theater company and be a homeowner. The energy didn’t result in achievement any more, barely resulted in anything, but I kept on needing it, or at least needed the booze that fueled my energy.

Readers know I’m not a God guy at all, not real interested in whether the Big Joker in the Sky is paying attention. Still, I pray 50 or 75 times a day, saying the same prayer over and over and over: “Thank you, God.” For today, I’m going to amend that prayer to “Thank you, God, and please help Larissa find a way to want to find a path to sobriety.”

Those of you who have a chattier relationship with a higher power, please feel free to embroider this message, and insert whatever other names are appropriate for you.

“…Now, and At the Moment the Truck Pulls Away”—The BVM and Me

Funny that a man who has been homeless, has helped homeless vets for the last five years, and who is technically homeless again, would write about a long-ago challenge in buying a house, but there it is.  When my wife and I moved into our house in 1989, we were faced with a problem. Neither of us is Catholic, but the house at 16 Fowell Avenue had a betubbed BVM, a Blessed Virgin Mary, in the yard, protected from the rain by one end of a bathtub sunken in the ground, a sort of Mother of God on the half shell.  The BVM sat on a solid granite base, testimony to her New Hampshire residence. Although the house was being sold because of a divorce—as would happen with Cindy and me 15 years later—I knew through some kind of closing gossip that Richard, the husband in question, was a fairly serious Catholic, one who went to Mass in the mornings instead of simply meeting his weekly obligations.  The problem we faced, then, was how to get rid of the BVM without offending the previous owner. Or other Catholics. Or God.

If Richard had collected garden gnomes or bunnies, it would have been easy enough to simply place the items at the bottom of the weekly trash, and let the city cart them off.  The BVM was way too large to hide among our trash, and sacrilege seems the only word to describe taking a hammer to Mary and nestling her pieces among the empty beer bottles, egg shells and used toothpaste tubes in our can. We may not have been Catholic, but we weren’t heathens either.

I thought of decorating her for each holiday—spray-painted red for Valentine’s Day, bunny ears for Easter and witch-like, with a small cauldron in front of her for Halloween. This tickled me greatly, but a friend pointed out that making a yard pet of the BVM dishonored Mary even more than iconoclasting her. Destruction would at least suggest we recognized the power of what we were doing, while transforming the statue into a mere decoration would be thumbing our nose at its sacred intent.

I tried to look into having Mary decommissioned, contacting Catholic friends to find out how to take a blessing off something. Unfortunately, these conversations headed one of two ways. Either the friend told me ways to remove a curse—and I didn’t suspect the statue was going to kill us in our sleep or render Cindy unfertile—or they suspiciously asked if I was a Satanist. (It strikes me the word “suspiciously” is probably unnecessary. I mean, it’s hard to imagine asking about possible Satanic sympathies without some kind of negative tone in the question.  The year before this, Geraldo Rivera had aired a “documentary” called Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground, fueling the ongoing Satanic panic. At the school I was running, I’d even interviewed a girl for admission whose mother claimed Martina had been rescued from a Satanist father. Later conversation with the girl revealed he’d been a Mormon.)

I could find no clear explanation of the church’s means of de-blessing, so I moved on to the plan that ultimately worked. In those pre-internet, pre-Craig’s List, pre-Facebook days, looking for a BVM recipient meant telling people you had a statue you wanted to give “to the right home” and asking them to spread the word. Eventually, an older Polish Catholic woman, whose name may have been Guziewicz, but could just as easily have been Nowakowski, sent word through an acquaintance that she might be interested in an adoption. I called her.


“Hi, Mrs. Guziewicz. My name’s Keith Howard, and I heard you might be interested in a BVM.”

“A what?” she croaked. “I don’t need a car, especially a German one. My husband fought against them, you know.”
“No, no, not a car. A Blessed Virgin Mary statue. It’s in my yard, and we don’t really have any use for her.”

“No use for the Virgin? What kind of talk is that? She can intercede for you with the Father. She can comfort you. She can dispense grace. Of course you have use for her! She’s the Mother of God.”

“I didn’t mean her, exactly,” I tried to explain. “I don’t have any use for the statue of her in our yard. We’re not Catholic.”

“Whether you’re Catholic or not, She is the mother of all humanity. You must respect and love her. Even if you revile her, she continues to love you.”

“I’m sure she’s great,” I said, “but would you like the statue?”

“Of course I would,” said Mrs. Guziewicz. “I’ll send my grandson over for it.”

We worked out the details, but before we ended the conversation, Mrs. Guziewicz had one last detail to work out.

“You said you’re not Catholic,” she said. “Are you Protestant?”

“Not exactly,” I half-truthed, having left the church a few years before.

“Are you a Jew?”

“Nope. Not Jewish.”

“I’ve been watching a lot on television,” she said, “and this one group has been causing a lot of problems. Are you a Satanist?”

“Nope,” I replied, tasting the suspicion in her voice.

The space that had held the BVM never grew grass, which you may believe is a sign of a curse. I think it’s because Mrs. Guziewicz’s grandson didn’t bother to dig out her granite base.

Unvisited Tombs and Unfound Skulls

I grew up in Durham, New Hampshire, a small town with little to distinguish it but the siting of the University of New Hampshire in the early part of last century. Because of its UNH DNA, Durham has quite an elevated view of itself, and those of us from the town share that feeling. College towns are by nature filled with transients—a quarter or more of the student population turns over every year, and no campus is complete with academic gypsies and hangers-on, adjuncts and instructors of various kinds. Still, Durham did have a core population of tenured professors, college administrators, farmers and descendants of the families that gave names to its streets.

My mother moved to Durham in 1939, when she was 10. My grandfather, Phil Barton, after running schools in Colebrook and Weare for 10 years, was invited to UNH to teach and start the Thompson School of Applied Science, an affiliated two-year degree program. Without wanting to besmirch his memory—something I’ve done enough of in other areas—I must point out UNH honored him in 1970 by building the ugliest building on campus and naming it after him. You could look it up.

Since my mother grew up in Durham, at least from the age of 10 or so on, my roots in town were well-established. When she went to work for the Durham Trust Company (which became Durham Bank, which became part of Portsmouth Bank which became so watered-down I lost track), I was in fourth or fifth grade. Her job, I believe, was to be a familiar face to old Durham families who banked there. I mean, if Bev Barton Howard worked there, the bank must still be a reliable local institution. She was a bellwether of safety and stability, despite having me as a son. (As an aside, when she retired from the bank in the 1980s, she was an officer, yet still made less than the youngest and newest male bank employee.)

White settlers have lived where I grew up since the early 1600s.  In that time, a bunch of people have shuffled off this mortal coil—or been dragged as corpses out the front door to the back forty.  Regardless of how they left this plane of existence, their bodies had to be buried some place.  As a child, walking through the woods behind my house, I thought nothing of coming upon five or eight blocks of granite with or without markings on them.  Just another graveyard—rocks holding down the souls of unknown dead.  Unkempt graves were a given of my childhood.

Each one of those stones though, represented a human, a man, woman or child who once ran and sang and loved and wept.  Now, all that is left of that dance they danced for 80 years or 80 minutes of life is a rock in the woods, bound eventually to be removed so a house or garage could be built.

The one thing I can know about the bodies buried in those unvisited tombs—they hadn’t died by duel or by suicide.  Dead duelists were buried coffin-less with a stake through their hearts while suicides in early New England were buried on the main road with a cartful of stones thrown down on them.  I know of no record of a man committing suicide in the midst of a duel, so I can offer no enlightening trivia on how this was handled.

Before UNH came to Durham, it was known mainly, if at all, for the Oyster River Massacre in 1694, where more than 100 settlers were killed by Abenaki Indians under the command of French leaders, hosted by the local Durham folks.  (The choice of the word “hosting” in the previous sentence gives the whole thing an upbeat and collegiate sound. More than 200 years before Durham became a college town, its settlers were playing a home-and-home series with the Indians—“you may have killed us today, but we’ll slaughter you next time!” one can picture a survivor calling out good-naturedly before turning to bury the dead and extinguish the fires.) Although I didn’t know any of the victims personally, not being born for more than 250 years after the mishap, the Oyster River Massacre played a larger role in my childhood than any other pre-Revolutionary act.

Beards Landing, the street I grew up on, was named after, I believe, William Beard, who was killed in a raid before the massacre. He was beheaded and his severed skull impaled on a post outside his garrison. Behind the locked doors, his family was able to observe his death and desecration. As a boy, I knew about burial rites for suicides and duelers, but found no information about the beheaded—for some reason, I assumed their bodies and heads were dragged into the woods. Much of my childhood was devoted to searching for Beard’s skeleton in the woods behind my house, a pleasant childhood pastime. I suspect it’s still there.

The massacre is commemorated by a very nice and romantic park off Route 108 (Newmarket Road) in Durham.  At sunrise or dusk, the park is the perfect place to take a lady friend to convince her of your sensitive nature.  Looking thoughtfully into the sunrise to the right or the sunset to the left, sigh and say, “Ahhhh, the humanity. Why must we treat each other so?”

She will be yours.

And you can go hand-in-hand to search for skeletons.


For Him Who Has Ears to Plug—The Tuba and Me

Ever since I was a little kid, lying on the living-room floor listening to the soundtrack to “Lil’ Abner” or “Carousel,” I’ve loved music. (We alcoholics use the phrase “moment of clarity,” and I just had one: a childhood listening to Broadway musicals of the 50’s and 60’s explains a lot about the trajectory of my future life. Of course, in a stereotypical universe, I would have grown to use words like “divine,” be an habitué of fern bars and understood moisturizing. We never had a stereo, though, so my childhood was monotypical. Instead of exploring musical theater, I set off for other unusual places)

In that living room, we had a piano, from which my mom gave piano lessons to girls from the neighborhood. Apparently, neither my mom nor her students were aficionados of John Cage, or at least they didn’t appreciate my piano preparations—typically a Hot Wheels car or GI Joe casually thrown into the soundboard and onto the strings. Eventually, the piano was off limits to me, no great loss, since I’d never been allowed to play it.

When my mom would sit down at the piano in the living room, my dad, my sister, Jennifer, and I would gather around. The three of them would sing, my mother asking me to listen—“you’re the best critic in the family,” were temporary magic words for me. Mentally jotting notes, I’d prepare critiques of each of their performances. Inevitably, though, I’d join in on one of my favorites like, “Who Put the Overalls in Mistress Murphy’s Chowder?” or “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard.” My addition would cause Jennifer to cry—not because this was her special time, but because my singing was loud and out of tune.

No prisoner of melody, I’d let emotion overtake me and croon/warble/croak/yell the words until my mom would sadly close the piano, hug Jennifer, and walk away. Since I’d been singing in opposition to the piano, I’d now feel unchained and continue murdering song after song out of the book. All alone.

At these times, even though I might only have been eight or nine, Jennifer, younger by two years, would say, “I can’t wait until you go away to college so we can sing like a family.” I had an ace up my sleeve—even in fourth grade, given my study habits and behavior, I was never getting into college.

When I got to junior high, despite my demonstrated lack of musical ability, I needed to learn an instrument. Why? Because all my friends were. Within a couple years, I would no longer be a part of the herd, having raced ahead to lead journeys the world of drugs with just a few close companions, but in sixth grade I still wanted to be one of the gang. Of course, the rest of the gang had at least a basic understanding of, or ear for, or lack of destructive tendency toward music, but I hadn’t recognized this yet.

My friends chose trumpets or trombones or the stand-up bass or the saxophone. Being physically small, I’d been a catcher in baseball for years, trying to overcome my size with gumption and a refusal to recognize I was ill-suited for the position. Using this same logic in choosing an instrument, I went for the tuba. “Went for.” Went for as we say a man went for his gun or another went in for the kill.

I’ve mentioned not being slave to a tune–I also lacked any sense of rhythm. I suppose not being able to clap in time with others during music class might have suggested that to me, but I was never a good student, even of the simplest lessons. I simply watched the kid next to me during clapping time, and thus was only a half-beat behind everyone else. As one of 20 or so little kids keeping time to third-grade folk songs, I could blend in.

An arrhythmic tuba player does not blend in. Just as gluttony leads to weight gain leads to mockery, so a bad tuba player’s sins are readily apparent to all with ears to hear. Or plug.

A tuba player with only an intellectual understanding of tune and no sense of rhythm, I quickly became an ex-tuba player. I suppose I could have tried another instrument, but lacking musical sense limited my choices. Perhaps I could have played the triangle in a marching band, or acted out a woodwind instrument without a reed, a Chaplinesque figure in a land of sound. Instead, I listened to my mother’s prophetic words.

I’m still the best critic in any room.


Fifty Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today, I was in fourth grade with Mrs. Bassett, looking forward to Red Sox opening day the following week. I’d become a huge baseball fan the previous summer, as had almost every kid in New England. We’d had Yaz and Tony C and Jim Lonborg and the rest of the ’67 Impossible Dream team to introduce us to the bitch-goddess of Red Sox fandom. After the Sox lost the World Series—their first in 21 years—to the Cards in seven games, I was sure that in ’68 we’d be even better, despite Lonborg’s skiing injury in December. On this, I was wrong.

Fifty years ago today, the weather in Durham was about average—high of 63 degrees, sunny, no rain. I likely wore a jacket to school and left it behind in the afternoon because it was so nice out. This meant I’d be cold tomorrow morning walking in, but it was worth it to travel home feeling the beginnings of spring, especially with baseball season starting in six days.

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed in Memphis. I’ve got nothing more to say, no clever turns of phrase. His death was tragic because his life was heroic. Here are some of his words:

Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.

Ten thousand fools proclaim themselves into obscurity, while one wise man forgets himself into immortality.

Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.

I came to the conclusion that there is an existential moment in your life when you must decide to speak for yourself; nobody else can speak for you

We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.

.Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on. It is not man.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.

Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.

There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.

Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.

Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.

 The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

 We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.

People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.

We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.

Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.

At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.

If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.

Doctor King was not just a prophet to black folks. Doctor King was not just a prophet to poor folks. Doctor King was not just a prophet to anti-war folks.

Doctor King was a prophet to all of us, and his words are worth reading again. Please start over.