19 March 2017

Stuff Happens, Some is Interesting -- I Write About it Because That's What I Do

How’m I doing? Sure why not, let’s start with that. Earlier today I ran nine miles so I feel pretty good. But subsequent to that I made what I thought was a funny comment to the wife but she was offended by it, got angry and I sunk into depression. It happens just like that. A small upset will take me from the top of the world to the bottom of the chasm. Sometimes nothing is required, I’ll just be sitting in my favorite chair feeling wonderful and in an instant I’m overcome with sorrow. No warning either. Earlier today I watched my favorite English soccer team suffer an ignominious defeat. Bummer. That was before my run. The run produced endorphins aplenty and the consequent runner’s high. After the run I watched my second favorite English soccer team win. It helped a little. Then came the dumb remark. So I was depressed and useless to the world. It’s difficult to be of any value to yourself or others during depression unless you’re working in which case you go on automatic pilot and are your usual self. I managed to pop a DVD that I got from Netflix into my computer. Fifteen minutes in I realized I wasn’t going to like the movie so I cut my losses and ejected it. Then I selected a movie from my extensive DVD collection (somewhere around 240 films) knowing that as one of my favorites I would enjoy it. The film in question was The Big Lebowski and I did indeed enjoy it.  I like The Dude his madcap adventures and wacky friends, lovers and opponents. The Coens directed the film and they're among my favorite directors. Right now the wife is out having dinner with an old friend (she’s no longer miffed with me, in case you were wondering) so finding myself home alone and hungry I ordered a pizza. As I write these very words that you are reading (I flatter myself that anyone will ever read this) I await the arrival of said pizza. Because it is for me and me alone I got to order any toppings I wanted and so it will come with anchovies, pineapple and green peppers. A Caesar salad will accompany said pizza. Yum. Thus ends this overly long paragraph.

Here begins what promises to be a much shorter paragraph. Yesterday during a teacher meeting we were informed of this that and the other thing and discussed one or two matters. There was nothing earth shattering being discussed, that’s the way of such things. A half an hour in I had to excuse myself to answer Mother Nature’s call. When I returned a teacher was discussing her problems with bored students and those (often, of course, bored) who can’t stay off their cell phone. I saw the boss glance over at me a couple of times and feared she’d call on me to advise in this matter. However I managed to keep my yap shut as other teachers commiserated and offered feeble suggestions and shared similar tragedies.Why my reluctance to throw in the proverbial two cents? I might have been forced — when asked what I do about bored students — to reply that I do not have bored students. Or at least none who are bored for more than a few seconds. How arrogant would that have sounded? Very, I’m sure. But the truth is I don’t have bored students. My only advice to teachers whose students are bored is to make your lessons more interesting. Be a more interesting person. It is not the fault of the student if she or he is bored. That’s on you the teacher, pal. As for cell phones, this is in large part a byproduct of boredom. But even in the best of classes students are constantly nagged by the feeling that their phone requires their immediate attention. Goodness knows what texts have been missed, or email or Facebook posts, or news or sports scores or Instagrams or tweets. The phone is irresistible because there is always something new on it. New, new, new. Yes I’ve gone off topic and am in danger of making this paragraph as long as the last when I’d promised not to. Simple enough. I stop it here.

This paragraph will be a more manageable length. So you may be wondering what I do about cell phones in class. Simple. I bash the offender over the head with a crowbar. Lesson learned. No but seriously folks. First of all repeat offenders lose their attendance for that class -- that rarely happens. Usually I stop teaching and stare at the person’s phone until they see fit to put it away. Only rarely do I have to “get tough.” I hasten to add that “getting tough” with ESL students from around the world is a piece of cake for someone such as myself who taught middle school for two decades.

I recently heard the same teacher who was whining about bored students talk to a colleague about how well a class had gone and how engaged everyone had been. She then spoke of how disappointed they’d all be the next day when the focus was entirely on grammar. She imagined having to tell them that they would have to take their medicine (I paraphrased, by the way, she said nothing of medicine, but it was the same idea). I was aghast. Imagine a teacher setting aside an entire class to grammar (perfectly okay — indeed encouraged — in a grammar elective class) and conceding that an entire class period was libel to be a big snooze. What an awful thing to do to students. Every class should cover several different skills and should be divided accordingly. Also, every class should have at least a modicum of fun. Learning should never be painful (unless you’re studying to be a masochist) learning should be a pleasurable experience. You can stuff in one helluva lot of knowledge and expertise and understanding while having a right jolly good time in the bargain. In fact people are better learners when they’re happy.

There are other things on my mind tonight, like a great many people I’m — shall we say —

That’s where I stopped writing on Saturday. Mid sentence. I don’t recall what interrupted me, maybe a meteor shower. We pick up this post on Sunday AM. You will note that some of the following is fictional — or is it?

Subsequent to the writings of last night I got into a knife fight with a passerby. Successful in this venture and intent on a peaceful blood-free evening, I watched an episode of he The Simpsons and ate my pizza. Eventually my wife returned from her dinner with old friend and we engaged in conversation. This was followed by a movie, more chatting and then off to bed. However the journey from living room to bedroom was interrupted by a beam of light radiating from the sky and shining through our window. I went outside to find that an alien spacecraft had landed  in front of our abode. One member of the crew alighted from the flying saucer and engaged me in conversation. Her first question was about the NCAA basketball tournament. I gave as much of an update as I could from memory then checked the other scores on my iPhone. She lamented that their internet was a bit spotty and the ship’s tech guy was at this moment working on it. The alien, who’s Earth name was Nancy, said that her home planet was several million light years away and their journey took six months. It would have been shorter but they stopped a few places to eat and take bathroom breaks and buy souvenirs. Eventually our conversation got around to the current political state of the world. I invited Nancy into the house and the wife and I got out our computers and showed her some clips of Donald Trump speaking and read her some of his tweets. Once fully apprised of the leader of the free world Nancy thanked us and said: “with this man being in charge I think it best we hightail it out of here.” Before departing she took a selfie with us. By the way Nancy bore a striking resemblance to a young Diane Keaton.

Because of the excitement of the evening it was difficult to get to sleep straightaway so I counted the number of alien encounters I’ve had. I remember getting to 30. I slept well. This morning I breakfasted on cereal, keifer and a banana along with English Breakfast tea. After a thorough scouring of the internet, the better half and I went grocery shopping. We have since returned home and I have written some of the words which you are no doubt not reading as you’ve never heard of me or my blog and wouldn’t read it if you had.

Now then, can you guess which parts of today’s addition to the blog post are fictional? Feel free to submit your guess in the comments section. Winners will receive an all expense round trip vacation to Syria. No foolin’.

13 March 2017

Those Were The Days: Burglary, Booze and Drugs and Mooney's Garage Home

One of my best friends in high school was Mike Mooney -- people only ever called him Mooney. He’d been kicked out of his parents’ house, though not very far out. He lived in the converted garage in the backyard. It was actually better than his room in the house or any of the rooms any of us had in our homes. He even had a hot plate and a toilet. I don't remember exactly why he got the heave ho but it likely had to do with his preference for drugs over school.

We used to hang out at Mooney’s because it offered us maximum privacy. Mooney's parents had as little to do with him as possible so there was no risk of anyone walking in us. We were all around 16 and had recently become enamored of alcohol and drugs, including psychedelics. We would sometimes drop acid there and then head for Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills.

The most nefarious of our activities was burglary. The rest of us were only accessories before and after the fact. Mooney did the dirty work. He would slip out of the garage and be gone for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and half. He was always successful and came back with liquor. He only once took anything else when there was a wad of cash sitting on a table that he felt was too tempting to resist. Our thieving friend also sometimes left a calling card in the form of a full toilet — provided that mother nature had called.

Being an idiot teenager I was able to rationalize Mooney’s escapades because it was booze he was heisting and often from people who had plenty to spare and maybe even so much that they wouldn’t miss what he took. My other friend, Mark Norman, and I did berate him for taking the cash but quickly forgot about it.

We would gladly imbibe whatever Mooney brought us. We had heard somewhere that mixing different kinds of alcohol was not recommend but we were young and invulnerable so didn’t worry about it. Usually the spirits accompanied the other drugs we took whether grass or acid so we didn't drink too much anyway.

We were great ones for conversations often covering great philosophical concepts. Like most teenagers we had a greatly exaggerated sense of our understanding of and insights into life. By virtue of our drug use we reckoned that we’d risen to another level of consciousness. Most everyone else — grown ups in particular — were hopelessly square and took everything at face value. We, on the other hand, were as enlightened as rock stars, who in our estimation were the true great thinkers of the world. Within the lyrics of rock songs were the keys to understanding life. Rock songs were the portals to higher levels of awareness. We constantly strove to reach higher levels of awareness. Politics invariably entered our conversations as we railed against Nixon, Vietnam and social injustice of all kinds. But mostly we laughed and talked about girls and movies and sports. We were basically happy lads though racked with psychological pain that we were not prepared to admit to much less wrestle with. Both Mooney and I were seeing psychiatrists. In my case the benefits of analysis were minimized by my steadfast determination to put on a good show for the doctor by being as cool as I possibly could and betraying no vulnerabilities.

We did delve into a lot of personal issues during our debauches and this was certainly cathartic although mitigated somewhat by how damn high we got. And get high we did. For my part scholastic achievements, glory on the athletic fields and family relationships didn’t suffer (though one could argue that all three might have been better had I not indulged so much). I received mostly “A”s and was a soccer star and other than my schizophrenic mother got along famously with family both immediate and extended.

One Saturday the soccer team Mark and I starred on won our league championship. The game was over by early afternoon so we headed over to Mooney’s. He had by this time accumulated several bottles of liquor. This was a rare occasion in that we had no drugs. Booze was not going to be the supplement but the main and only course. We decided to find a secluded spot in the hills and partake.

I recall taking large swigs of various types of liquor, primarily whiskey and vodka. My companions were more restrained. It was not long before I was stinking drunk and could neither stand nor see. Yes, I was blind drunk. Mark and Mooney had to lead me stumbling through the streets of Berkeley on a long trek back to my home. My father was away for the weekend and my mother was of sound body but not mind. After being deposited at the front door, mom put me to bed concluding that I had a nasty case of the flu. This notion was not diminished when the next morning I went on an extended vomiting spree.

On Monday I was fit as a fiddle again, I’ve always been able to rebound from illness and during my drinking days from hangovers. I saw Mark that day and he told me of a conversation that him and Mooney had as I lied there on the hill totally out of it. They had decided that if the three of us were stranded on an island I would be the first to die. It seemed an unnecessary remark to make, not to mention cruel, but teenage boys are not known for their tact. I remembered that comments years later. Within two years of it Mooney had died of a drug overdose and a several years after that I spoke with Mark on the phone and his mind was all but gone from hundreds of acid trips. This former pacifist said he wanted to join the army so he’d have the chance to legally kill people. I don’t know whatever became of him but it couldn't have been good.

Eventually, of course, I became more proficient at drinking, in large part because my beverage of choice became beer, which is far easier to handle. I would sometimes partake of scotch, brandy, wine with meals, martinis and other concoctions if the spirit or moment so moved me. I steered away from all drugs with the rather notable exception of cocaine which I indulged in given half a chance, or a quarter of one.

Drinking became a way of life for me, one that was all encompassing and threatening to destroy me. It was a miracle when the lightning struck and the realization came that I was an addict. Now nearly 30 years later I am miles away from perfect with no possibility of getting much closer — progress not perfection being the byword. I’m bi polar and struggle with depression but so long as I don’t yield to despair I manage well enough.

My times with Mark and Mooney and other assorted friends who sometimes joined us remain an important memory for me, indeed one I cherish. Those were — at the risk of being obvious — formative years and for better and for worse shaped the person I’ve been ever since. I appreciate the headiness of those times and the ongoing efforts to make sense of the world. I’m forever sorry that fate was not kinder to my two companions and forever grateful that I’ve lived such a fulfilling and happy life highlighted by a successful marriage and two daughters who I love beyond all measure.

Good ole Mooney, good ole Mark. High times, fun times. Times.

06 March 2017

What if While Riding on the Subway......



What if while riding on the subway someone ran down the aisle throwing confetti?

What if while riding on the subway the person next to me claimed to be the reincarnation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky?

What if while riding on the subway I faked a heart attack?

What if while riding on the subway a ball of fire came flying down the car right at me?

What if while riding on the subway a giraffe tried to board but couldn’t because it’s neck was too long?

What if while riding on the subway all the passengers broke into song and the song was Stairway to Heaven?

What if while riding on the subway Beyonce and Jay Z sat across from me?

What if while riding on the subway a service dog started break dancing?

What if while riding on the subway a ballet troupe boarded and proceeded to recite dirty limericks?

What if while riding on the subway the driver got on the intercom and said he wasn’t wearing pants?

What if while riding on the subway someone created a ruckus or a brouhaha or a free-for-all?

What if while riding on the subway two passengers exchanged harsh words regarding the hidden message of Peter Pan?

What if while riding on the subway someone played a recording of the Sermon on the Mount as read by Fred Flinstone?

What if while riding on the subway a pelican wearing kilts and a tam o’ shanter got on?

What if while riding on the subway I started asking people if they had ever met Gilbert and or Sullivan?

What if while riding on the subway someone got on board extolling the virtues of necrophilia?

What if while riding on the subway everyone started speaking Iroquois?

What if while riding on the subway I thought of some particularly silly questions about riding the subway?

What if while riding on the subway I had an existential —                ?

What if while riding on the subway someone complained about their lumbago while eating a liverwurst sandwich?

What if while riding on the subway half the passengers started to think about one thing and the other half started to think about the other?

What if while riding on the subway someone stopped looking at her or his cellphone and said, “Maybe I’ll just think for a little while"?

What if while riding on the subway the train went into and out of and into and out of different dimensions?

What if while riding on the subway there was a momentary lull and then a crash and a boom?

What if while riding on the subway the air was rife with a tension so thick you could use it as dry wall?

What if while riding on the subway toxic fumes rendered everyone narcoleptic?

What if while riding on the subway I made an obscure literary reference and someone coughed?

What if while riding on the subway someone initiated a burping contest?

What if while riding on the subway angels flitted about kissing foreheads?

What if while riding on the subway there was a pleasant interlude?

What if while riding on the subway the ghost of William Howard Taft walked through asking people, "what the hell are you doing here, buddy?"

What if while riding on the subway the Gestapo came through saying, "your papers, please?"

What if while riding on the subway there was an act of kindness and another of civil disobedience and yet another of courageous defiance?

What if while riding on the subway a hushed silence fell over the crowd as the great man rose to speak in defense of the accused?

What if while riding on the subway there was an outbreak of sanity?

What if while riding on the subway a dentist plied his tried?

What if while riding on the subway there was turbulence and it was because we had taken flight?

What if while riding on the subway Jean Valjean ran through our car with Inspector Javert in hot pursuit?

What if while riding the subway I just said, "th-th-th- that's all folks!"?

01 March 2017

My Goddamned Brain is Having its Way With Me Again



“I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.”
-- Sylvia Plath

The brightness outside is paralyzing. I got a block and half and had to turn around and come home. I’m currently a prisoner in my home. I’d only just taken my morning Ativan minutes before leaving. Maybe if I wait for it to kick in I can try again. Maybe I’ll take a second one. It’s okay to take two in a day. If I take two and still can’t venture out then I’m in trouble. I suppose I’m in trouble as it is.

I have no such problems when it’s cloudy or at night. No panic attacks then. But bright sunlight, sometimes even when I’m indoors, can trigger whatever it is that makes me feel the grip of terror. That horrible, awful feeling of not belonging in my own skin. The surety of pending madness, the total death of reality and the fall into the abyss.

The odd thing is that one of my stops was going to be the pharmacy where refills on some of the medications I take await me. You think I like being a slave to pills? Trust me, it’s not my idea, not my choice. I bristle every time a doctor prescribes something. But I’m fighting desperate battles against acute panic disorder and depression. I’m bi-polar. Going to war without meds is like fighting a well-armed enemy without weapons. Yes I go to therapy as well. In fact I have an appointment this afternoon. I’m worried about making it there. But I know I have to so one way or the other I will.

Sometimes my life is a living hell. Fortunately I have so much love and beauty and warmth and kindness surrounding me that I can still push on. Yesterday was my birthday and the love and well wishes I received filled me with strength enough to carry on for another year. But right now I’m scared and worried and sad. I can’t take a normal walk on a normal day on normal errands.

Normal, what a concept. What the hell is “normal” anyway? I don’t feel like I’ve ever had the benefit of normality. I’ve also never really understood it. Does it exist? Do I even want it? I see people who seem normal and are in seemingly normal situations and their lives appear so empty, so dull, so uninspired, a walking death. Of course I can’t possibly know all the triumphs and all the tragedies that make up their lives, just as they can’t know mine. We really know so little about one another, even the people we encounter on a daily basis. What do they really think? What turns them on? What scares them? What are their hopes, dreams, foibles, fears, idiosyncrasies?

We all put on public faces. There are ways in which we want others to perceive us. For one thing we want to be seen as normal, we want to fit in, be liked. Some of us want more attention than others, some of want less. I know for my part I want both. I want to be left alone but at the same time noted for what makes me interesting.

In putting on public masks people obviously want to show themselves at their best. This often requires exaggeration and the glossing over of weaknesses. Our public face is like a resume that highlights our accomplishments — stretching the truth as necessary — and ignores our failures.

In fitting in we try to find common ground. This is often easiest when recounting everyday experiences. We share stories and feelings about naturally occurring experiences. The vagaries of commuting, the common cold, minor mishaps, meals, the weather, weekends, sleep are all typical fodder to relating to one another without over sharing and without risk.

There is also a common language used by each generation. For example I work with a lot of people who are many years my junior. They constantly say things like: “totally” “no worries” “right on” “so…..” “awesome.” None of these words are extraordinary in anyway but it is their particular usage and the frequency with which they are employed that is different from people of my generation.

End of first part. After writing it I successfully ran my errands, returned home, watched a movie, cleaned the house, went to my appointment and returned home again. This second part is written  seven hours later.

I am, according to my psychiatrist, a puzzler. My depression is erratic and neither seems biological nor caused by external factors. I do not consider this to be good news. My panic attacks are another matter and not so pressing as, today aside, they haven’t been a problem for the past eight months or so. Barring a repeat of this afternoon’s trouble, we can steady our focus on the mystery of my bouts of depression, one of which has made its way into my consciousness in the past half hour. Great. Fantastic. Wonderful. Super. Once again I’m enveloped by sorrow and the pain of living no matter that all in my life is both hunky dory and peachy keen.

At least I’m so far able to write. The depression has sometimes makes the very idea of creating sentences seem like climbing up a sheer cliff. Already now I find it hard to finish a sentence and very difficult indeed to start a new one. The dull all encompassing mental ache is starting to take over. I’m trying mightily to push through it and create.

…………………………….. Harder and….harder. I probe I push I pull I pulverize I ponder I peak I perambulate I prevaricate I passssssssssssss.

Nuh.

Dinner is cooking. I can smell it. Tamales. Refried beans (why were they fried again?). There will be cool water. There will be desert. There will be reading if the depression doesn’t tighten its grip and if it does I will resort to the television and I will sigh. So these are my days. Sometimes. Unless they are not. Never know what’s coming. At least I can count on surprises.

Oh god I feel soooooooooooo bad. Totally. Not awesome. Many worries. Right on and off. World without end, the whirling dervish and the captive brain cells and the hells bells and turtle shells and smells of —

26 February 2017

My Recent "Procedure" -- You Gotta Have Heart



I had an atrial flutter. An anomaly in the heartbeat. Potentially not at all serious. In fact, I didn’t feel it. But it was there and it was a personal embarrassment. I’ve taken on all manner of mental and emotional disorder and don’t even mind sharing my struggles, but physical maladies are not my thing. I instructed my immediate family to close ranks on this one. No one was to know. (I think my secret will remain safe given the number of readers this blog has, or should I say, doesn’t have.)

The flutter was discovered at my annual physical just before Christmas. This necessitated three visits to a cardiologist and the determination that I needed to have an electrical cardioversion, a simple out patient “procedure” in which a shock is sent to the heart in order to restore its natural rhythm. Meanwhile I could continue to run to my heart’s content. How big a deal could it be if I could keep running? Frankly not much but still needing to be tended to.

I had the procedure last Friday. I was not to eat or drink anything after midnight. I reported to the hospital at 7:00 where I was checked in. I sat in the waiting room for somewhere around 12 seconds. Hadn’t even got comfy. I was greeted by the first of nine medical professionals who would tend to me in the coming four hours. She led me to a changing room where I was to take off all clothing (mine) and put on two hospital gowns, one to “cover your butt” as the young lady put it. Emerging in my new duds she took me to bed where I was to lay under the strangest and most comfortable blanket I’d ever seen. It was inflatable and quite warm without being at all hot.

Another nurse came in and checked my vitals. Virtually everyone who I came in contact with asked me my date of birth and last name to make sure it corresponded with what was on the hospital issued wrist band. Also pretty much everyone checked my blood pressure, pulse and temperature. All were always fine. I’m like that. I was also given an EKG to see if my heart had corrected itself, but alas such was not the case. The show was to go on.

A third nurse came in and she was very cute and very nice. She stuck the IV into me which hurt for somewhere around one second. My wife was allowed to see me. Her presence ended my flirtation with the cute nurse. It’s for the better, I would have only broken her heart. The missus is a great person to have around in any circumstance. I wasn’t at all nervous about the procedure but it still felt good to have her calm, reassuring demeanor in the room. I love her with all my heart whether its fluttering or not.

Finally the doctor himself entered. He was an old fogey as many of the best doctors are. He was also somewhat of a chatterbox, which was okay by me although I heard a little bit more about his grandchildren than I needed to. He explained the procedure and made it sound like pretty pedestrian stuff. Then the anesthesiologist made his appearance. If I hadn’t known his profession I would have guessed anesthesiologist. Yup, looked the part to a tee. He was young and somber and reassuring. He asked a few questions about my medical history (for the millionth time, I have no allergies!) and because of my experiences with panic attacks he gave me a mild sedative, intravenously.

The anesthesiologist and yet another nurse wheeled me to…I wanna say operating theater but it was probably just a room for “procedures.” A mask was put over my face and I was instructed to breath in. The next thing I know a couple of people are saying my name and snapping fingers and looking me in the eyes. The “procedure” all two seconds of it, were over. I was very groggy but managed to assure one and all that I was fine. I was then wheeled to a recovery room by yet another nurse. We took a circuitous path that led us through Albuquerque. We bumped a few things along the way. The penultimate nurse was waiting for me and she checked my vital signs and did another EKG. I was finally able to have something to eat and drink. Crackers and juice, yummy! Then I made a big mistake. I started in on the crackers before the juice was delivered. My mouth was as wet as the Mojave Desert in August. I could no more swallow those crackers that were now caked in my mouth than I could dunk a basketball. The arrival of the juice was cause for relief and celebration.

After I was deemed fit to rejoin the human race, I was allowed to put on my clothes, which I did with some degree of difficulty being out of sorts as I was. Once clothed I was placed in a wheelchair to be wheeled out of the hospital and into my wife’s loving arms. I did not like the idea of being in a wheelchair but I understood hospital regulations. I was “driven” by a sweet young lady who seemed expert at pushing the conveyance. Much as I didn’t like it, the ride was smooth.

And that, as they say was that. Loving wife drove me home. I was as sedate and mild and weak as a newborn kitten, sans meowing. It should not surprise anyone that I parked my carcass on the sofa and watched TV until falling into a long slumber.

By the evening I was well enough to go to a basketball game. Meanwhile I now notice that those extra beats my heart would make as I plopped into bed and then hours later when I rose, were gone. For in the days before  the “procedure” I’d started to pay attention and finally noticed that there was what can only be described as a flutter. It’s gone. The miracles of modern medicine.

Throughout my four hours at the hospital (Alta Bates in Berkeley where I, my brother and my daughters were born) I was impressed by the efficiency and kindness of everyone with whom I came in contact. I thought the business of confirming my identity and constantly checking my blood pressure was overdone, but I trust in the professionals who made me feel relaxed and in good hands. True professionals working to the best of their ability. I like it.

20 February 2017

Recalling the Dark Days Before Smart Phones Saved Us From Ourselves



I recall people going to gyms and working out 20 years ago and indeed much further back than that. As a matter of fact the gym I go to has been in operation for close to 100 years. I find this utterly baffling. How could people risk going to the gym? How could people be away from their phones for so long? What if there was an important message? How could anyone reach them immediately except by going to the gym and giving them the message verbally and then only if they knew said person was at the gym?

Today while on the treadmill I saw two different people text while on nearby machines. One stopped to answer a text and the other slowed down and texted while walking. This is not at all unusual. I see this all the time. I’m sure if someone had asked them why on earth they were texting during their workout they would have said it was important. Thank god you can bring your cellphone with you. I stupidly left my in my locker for the entirety of my hour long workout. There was no way for anyone to reach me. Even if it was important.

I’m sure the people who receive these messages during their exercise period couldn’t have torn themselves away from their phone in the dark ages before mobile phones. One wonders if they could have gone to movies or plays or sports events or to the park or out for a walk or camping or boating or to the circus or to visit friends or to weddings or funerals or whorehouses or cock fights or public executions. It’s like contemplating eternity to imagine a time when we blithely strolled the streets with no way for anyone to reach us. Think of all the important messages we missed?

But — as they say in commercials — that’s not all. People used to leave their homes with no access to what was happening at the very moment all over the world. That’s right. No Twitter, no news apps, no Facebook. Plus, sans Twitter. there was no way of finding out if someone famous or a friend or some stranger you thought was funny or someone connected to a news organization had shared a thought. Similarly there was no way to see the latest photo posted on Instagram (as it didn't exist, nor was there anything of its kind). People were terribly isolated. Sometimes people on an outing would have to resort to talking to one another as there were no cellphones to stare at. People at sports events would actually watch the game and talk to their companions because they not only didn’t have a cellphone, there were no contests, sing-a-longs, kiss cams or other diversions provided by big screens during time outs.

When I was a teenager mucking about with friends, we had to rely on our wits to occupy the times. We would share ideas, relate stories, tell jokes, argue, commiserate, explain, and even tell outlandish lies. How we survived with just that is difficult to imagine.

On buses people read newspapers or books or looked out the window or, if with someone, chatted. Sometimes people on buses would just sit and think. Strange, I know.

One of the horrors of those bygone years was the inability of taking and sharing pictures of your meals. You would have to see someone or talk on the phone and describe the plate of food you were served at a restaurant. Quite often you wouldn’t bother as you realized it wasn’t worth talking about. You also couldn’t take selfies alone or with friends. Duck faces were non existent. On those rare occasions when your photo was taken you would instead smile, or not. It was pure hell to walk around not taking photos of every little thing of interest and sending them immediately to people or posting them on a website. Think of what we missed. If you saw something worth remembering you just had to remember it. You were stuck having to experience life rather than recording it.

Yes the smart phone is an indispensable part of modern life. I’ve been given to understand that you can even use it to make phone calls. Imagine that.

19 February 2017

As a Service to My Readers I Provide this Instructional Video on Dialing Your Telephone



I stumbled across this video earlier today (I find that I stumble across many things on the internet and am thus forever taking spills or stubbing a toe or banging a knee, thankfully rarely do serious injuries occur). Though it was made some years ago, it is as fresh and relevant as the latest on Twitter. I found that it wonderfully capsulized the vagaries of dialing a phone. Oddly it made no mention of call waiting or face time or text messaging, one assumes those are covered in a subsequent video, I will do due diligence to find those for you. I hope this video clears up any confusion or problems you've been having while making telephone calls. Enjoy and learn!

18 February 2017

The Mysterious Visit of Leonard Bertrand



So then I started in on him about existentialism because he’d mentioned Jean-Paul Sartre. I let him have it about how bogus its precepts were. Being drunk like I was, I probably wasn’t very articulate and certainly slurred some words but I got my message across. I thought sure I had him, that I’d made a cogent and compelling argument. But no, he gave me a sly smile, took a drag from his cigarette and in his cultured, superior voice drilled me right between the eyes about how sophomoric my argument was and how it betrayed my obvious ignorance on the topic, adding that I “should perhaps consider reading  at least a little bit of Kierkegaard before spouting such nonsense.”

I tried to respond but the combination of not knowing half as much as he did on the topic and my advanced state of intoxication rendered me incapable of forming a coherent sentence. Damn it.

He was an African American poet, musician, art critic , he was a real dandy and a queer too. I mean he was a twig of a guy. I’m not so big but I could have snapped him in two, which I sometimes felt like doing. Yet he was surrounded by smart, beautiful women who doted on him and clung to his every word. For my part I hated his smug sophistication and his intellectual superiority. He’d read every novel and all the great poets and philosophers and knew art like I knew baseball and was an expert on wines and gourmet foods and had traveled the world. What this aesthete was doing in our little college town was a mystery, but for the two weeks he was in town it was all I could do to stay away from him

His name was Leonard Bertrand and he must have been about 30 years old. He wore nice clothes but nothing fancy and in neutral colors, except for this flimsy scarf he wore around his neck in what I thought was a pretentious manner. He smoked long thin cigarettes one after the other holding them effeminately. Leonard’s drink was a Dubonnet and he swallowed them with the same frequency as he lit a smoke. Yet he  never showed any sign of intoxication.

I only got to know Leonard (he didn’t let anyone call him Len) because he hung out in the bar I frequented, Le Monde. At no point did I actually hate or even dislike him, butI  was forever annoyed and frustrated by the ease with which he provoked me, often by making fun of sports or beer or TV. I think Leonard directed barbs my way because I could and would come right back and I was no dummy like some of the crowd that made the bar their home away from home. Sure when I got drunk I was no match for him, but at least I knew something about it when he mentioned Hesse or Proust or Matisse or Goya or goddamned Lord Byron, all among his favorites. Meanwhile he’d trash Whitman, Melville, Hemingway and especially Norman Rockwell, all among my favorites. Leonard mocked pretty much every American artist of any sort and I think it was just to put the needle in me. What ticked me off the most was when he trashed the Beat writers. Kerouac was my hero and of course Leonard would tear him up one side and down the other finishing by looking me square in the eyes and flashing that “I know best” grin.

Screw the bastard, I thought any number of times. It sometimes seemed to make more sense to stay the hell away from him and avoid the aggravation. But that was easier said than done. For one thing all the interesting women congregated around him. I could only talk sports for so long with the usual crowd before I got tired of hearing half-baked opinions and misquoted stats and endless renditions of previous games. The truth was I got something out of sparring with Leonard Bertrand, even if he did “best” me 99.9% of the time.

Leonard had this irritating way of getting my attention. “Well hello Robert,” he’d say, even though I exclusively went by Bob. Sometimes he even said Robert in French. (He would often sprinkle French words and phrases into his conversation — and with a perfect French accent.) So right away he’d get under my skin and I’d want to head in the other direction. But I was drawn to him like a fly who couldn’t resist a web. Truth be told Leonard was a charming guy and he’d always buy me a drink. “I suppose you’re having a beer,” he’d say, only he’d say the word beer in this low, slow voice to make it sound like something truly disgusting.

“What have you got against beer?” I asked him once.

“Oh nothing, nothing at all,” he replied matter of factly. But then he’d add, “its just not what I would choose to drink, it being so…” 

“Are you gonna say something like ‘vulgar’?”

“Why heavens no,” Leonard answered acting the picture of innocence. “It’s just not to my taste.”

“Oh and you’re taste is superior to mine.”

“If you say so,” he said and take another long drag off his skinny cigarette.

Usually Leonard would be sitting at one of the big tables to accommodate all the women sitting with him. I couldn’t figure out what they saw in him, maybe they thought they could convert him to heterosexuality, but I couldn’t see the point in that what with him not exactly being Sidney Poitier. He had these big bug eyes and a high forehead. His face showed the effects of all the damn smoking he did. I don’t remember seeing him eat, though he knew all about food. Being repelled by exercise, as he said he was, it didn’t seem that Leonard had prospects for a long and healthy life. Leonard usually held forth on literature, art and music but was not above discussing films and made occasional reference to politics but only to lament the sad state of American democracy.

It never got truly heated between Leonard and I though it almost did once. I forget exactly what we were talking about — I think it was related to political science — when I said: “being black you should understand —”  He cut me off right there, which he’d never done before in such an abrupt manner. For the first time his voice was raised. “Dear Robert I do hope that you are not going to assume that you know anything about being black in American or anywhere else for that matter.”

“No ya see I just meant — ”

Holding up his right hand as if to say stop, Leonard continued, “please let me finish. You white people are forever trying to encapsulate the black experience in a few words, usually ill-chosen ones at that. Its especially troubling with you enlightened liberals who revere our Civli Rights Movement and the slain martyr Dr. King. You’ve co-opted Dr. King for your own purposes, primarily to assuage your guilt. You think yourselves superior because you extoll the principles of equality and abhor racism. All this is fine in its way but you continue to patronize and think that because you read Ellison or Baldwin or Soul on Ice and admire Dr. King’s speeches that you are an expert on the black experience and our are brothers. But you’ve no real clue what living in black skin means. The looks, the fear, the harassment and the legacy that we live with. So don’t ever say ‘being black you should understand’ or anything to that effect. Our experience as African Americans is something you cannot begin to understand.”

Leonard had never spoken with such passion before. There was anger but it was controlled, not causing him to lose any of his rhetorical powers. I was stunned, hurt, angry but deep down knew that he was 100% correct.

“I’m sorry Leonard, I — ”

“No, no” he said quickly and dismissively, “you don’t get off with a mere apology. Just never mind, all right?” Then he turned to two of the women sitting to his right and began an animated and laugh-filled conversation. I sat there like an idiot not knowing what I should or could do next. Finally I got up and joined the jocks by the TV where a baseball game was on. I then proceeded to get royally smashed.

When I came in the next evening, there was Leonard holding court as usual, I glanced in his direction not expecting him to so much as exchange a glance with me. But proving that Leonard was nothing if not unpredictable he cheerily greeted me and beckoned me to his table. “Waiter,” he called to a passing server,” please get my friend Robert a beeeeer,” once again demonstrating his contempt for my beverage of choice.

I’d wondered if Leonard would want to talk to me again but of course he did. He’d made his point and perhaps the better question was whether I’d want to talk to him. In fact when I walked into LeMonde I had no intention of approaching him or looking his way.

The truth being that I was flattered by his attention and in a curious way even turned on. Not sexually, of course, but excited that such an erudite man would show an interest in me. There was something exotic about Leonard what with him being an intellectual, African American and gay all wrapped into one. I meant many who fit into one or even two of those categories, but all three? Never.

We enjoyed a particularly pleasant evening. It seemed my adversary was taking pity on me as he indulged my opinions and perspectives. The truth was that I felt it quite a feather in my cap to be entertained and to entertain such a worldly man. I was a reporter on the local independent weekly having only a year before graduated from college. I served as both a sportswriter and a news reporter and my dream was to be a columnist and author. The experience of butting heads with Leonard seemed invaluable.

Our little town was collectively more interested in sports and parties then anything else. African Americans made up less than 10% of the population and most of those were college students and most of those students were here to play football, basketball or run track. There was a small Gay Student Union but it was likely that the vast majority of the town’s gay population was securely in the closet. The intellectual discourse in town mainly took place in classrooms or among faculty or the school’s few graduate students. Thus Leonard Bertrand was an anomaly in our town.

One evening Leonard practically ordered me to his table. I had no sooner sat down then he said, “Robert, I’ve taken it upon myself to do a little bit of reading, specifically of what you generously call your a newspaper and more specifically of your writing.” I did not like the fact that he said “writing” in much the same way he said “beer.”

“I’m all ears,” I said wondering whether I should vigorously defend myself or finally tell him to fuck off.

“Robert my friend, I find myself in an awkward situation.” Here he paused and took a long drag from his cigarette as I waited for the sword of Damocles to dispatch my beer-sotted head.

“It seems I’ve underestimated you, you’re a writer of some merit, clever at times, to the point and even provocative.”

I was stunned and delighted to hear praise from this man with whom I had a love/hate relationship, “Thanks, Leonard I — ”

As he so often did Leonard raised his right hand to silence me. “However,” he intoned dramatically, “there is much room for improvement. You litter your writing with cliches, you can be repetitive and show restraint when you should trust yourself to fully explore your own feelings. It is my opinion that you’d be best served by reading more of the classics and taking on more challenging assignments, these fluff pieces you so often write about don’t stimulate your voice.” And “voice” he said with great passion, drawing the end out sibilance.

Then Leonard turned his attention way from me in casual manner and went back to entertaining his entourage. I knew my time was up and I repaired to the other end of the bar and the TV. But I only had one more beer before I suddenly had the urge to dash home and review my recent writing, I was inspired. On the way out the door I caught a glance from Leonard. I smiled and he nodded. I never saw him again.

A few nights later I returned to Le Monde but Leonard Bertrand was conspicuous by his absence. No one had seen him for two days. I asked around and was told he’d been staying in a room at the Gloucester Hotel the town’s nicest such establishment. The next day I inquired at the Gloucester’s front desk and learned that Leonard had checked out and left no forwarding information.

I investigated the mysterious Leonard Bertrand as if I were doing an article about him and indeed it crossed my mind that, depending on what I learned, there may be an interesting story in Leonard. But I found nothing. There wasn’t much to go on because Leonard had only spoken in generalities. All I knew with any degree of certainty was that he grew up on the East Coast and had lived in Paris for a time, the rest was guesswork. Surely he had had an extensive university education but I’d know idea where, nor did I know for certain what professional opinions he had held.

No one even had any clue why he had visited our fair city. None of the professors I spoke to knew of him nor did anyone at the local daily paper. He was a mystery.

In the years that followed, Leonard Bertrand’s visit was almost completely forgotten. But to a few of us he became something of a legend. There was endless conjecture, speculation and wonder. There were occasional rumors about his whereabouts, but none were credible.

It’s been decades now and I still think about Leonard. He had a lasting influence on me as a writer but more importantly as a person. I still replay some of our discussions — although this time I offer clever ripostes and more profound insights. Yes, he was pretentious, arrogant and dismissive but he had a towering intellect and personal magnetism. I keep wondering if  Leonard Bertrand was really his name and if perhaps he is today — and maybe was back then — a person of some notoriety, perhaps even famous. I wish I knew for sure.

11 February 2017

This is About Right Now, Today, How I've Been, How I Always Have Been

Photo by author

“I planned to suffer
and I cannot.” 
-- Anne Sexton

I ran nine miles this morning. Now I’m just sitting in my room unable to do anything. Oh except write this.

I lost my cellphone on Thursday. Got it back on Friday. Now I’m just sitting in my room unable to do anything. Oh except write this.

I had a satisfying work week during which I very much enjoyed my interactions with students. Now I’m just sitting in my room unable to do anything. Oh except write this.

I started to watch a movie then took a nap then got a glass of water then checked twitter. Now I'm here writing this.

I went to a basketball game last night. Watched a movie after.

I’m almost finished reading a book. When I’m done I’ll start another one. I’m probably going to bring some CDs to Amoeba tomorrow to trade in for store credit so I can get some new CDs. Monday I’ll go to work. On workdays I get up at 5:45 then shower then eat breakfast then dress. My wife checks my tie for me to make sure its on straight and the collar on my shirt is okay. After that I kiss her goodbye and walk to the commuter bus. It’s usually a couple of minutes before the bus comes. I get on and sit in my usual spot. Then I read. I’ll sometimes take in the view while going over the bridge into San Francisco.

Once in SF, I walk to the bus that I take to work. I’m usually one of the first there so I end up turning on lights. Typically I have about 30 minutes before my first class. I like to ease into my teaching day. Once that starts I’m all energy, excitement and enthusiasm.

Before returning home I sometimes go to the gym and work out. Other times I swing by the store to buy a few groceries, as needed. On Wednesday I go see my psychiatrist. I sit in the waiting room either reading or looking at twitter on my cell phone. The doctor comes down the stairs, peaks at me giving me a nod and half smile and I follow him to his office. He holds the door open for me and I bound in. 

I sit down and usually start by telling him if I’ve suffered any depression in the last week. Usually I have. Last week I hadn’t. Next time I’ll have some to report as I’ve been in throes of it since my cellphone went missing. Even its safe return didn’t bring me out of it. Nor did the endorphins from today’s run.

We don’t just talk about depression. There’s usually a number of different topics that come up. Sometimes they’re related to my childhood, specifically my schizophrenic mother. I also talk about my sorted past when I was a practicing addict and alcoholic. I’ve got a lot of good stories. Of course whatever we discuss is meant to get at some deeper truths, to explore my brain and gain access to those things that have tormented me, like panic attacks. Depression, of course, too. I didn’t mention that I’m bipolar. It’s true. I’m fine with it. I’m being treated. Therapy and meds. Therapy and meds. Therapy and meds.

My mind has not always been an easy thing to live with. Anxiety and fear and terror bounce around in my consciousness. I’ve spent most of my life worrying about turning into a lunatic like my mother. Hasn’t happened so far and likely never will.

The good thing is that I’m generally pretty happy. Why shouldn’t I be? Despite my struggles its a treat to be alive. I’ve enjoyed so much. Like my wife and my daughters and many of my work experiences and sex and food and travels and music and films and books and sports and friends.

I just wish friends didn’t die. One died last month and its hurt quite a bit. I miss him. My best ever friend died in 2002 and I’ll never get over that. He was so young too. My parents and my brother and a couple of other friends and grandparents and uncles and aunts have all died. I miss them terribly. They helped make me a better and happier person than I would have been without them. There was a lot of love between them and I. I guess there still is but when a person is dead it takes on a different form. You can’t touch them. You can’t talk to them. Well, you can, but they can’t talk back.

My wife is making burritos tonight. They’re delicious. She makes them without meat. I’m a pescatarian. That means I eat fish but no other animals. I find meat repulsive. Just like some other things I used to indulge in like cigarettes.

People who stand outside smoking look sad. They’re just practicing an addiction. What can be the joy of it? Sure you can stand outside with your fellow addicts puffing away, but that’s still sad. Why not stand outside and eat an orange instead? They’re cheaper and infinitely better for you. Plus if someone walks by, instead of having to hold their breath to avoid cigarette smoke, they can breath in the odor of an orange.

Until last June I drank coffee in the morning. But after a worst ever panic attack that made me wish for death, I was ordered off coffee by my psychiatrist. I’ve never bothered to ask if its okay to start again. I really don’t miss it. Plus I have a cup (actually a mug) of black tea every morning. There have been a few times when I’ve been tired and needed a pick-me-up and in those instances I’ve bought a hot chocolate.

I’ve had to quit lots of things in my life. Its okay. I don’t mind depriving myself of something that I’m better off without, like steaks or cocaine or lattes.

So I’m still in my room and having written this I have a sense of accomplishment and feel that I can build on this and do something else. Like maybe finish that book. But first I’ve got to get something to tide me over until dinner. I’m hungry.