15 October 2017

You've Got to Know Your Limitations -- A Story of Murder and Betrayal



There was this little place on the corner where I used to like to go for coffee in the morning. Freezing cold, clear and sunny, didn’t matter, the cafe was a nice home away from home. It was small but did a brisk business, a lot of to-go orders but I always sat at the counter.

I liked to go there and read the New York Times or a novel. Sandra owned the place and she’d always be there. I mean always. Maybe sometimes she’d be in the back but only for a second. Sandra was in her mid 40s (she told me) but looked closer to 30. I don’t know how she got such a deep tan given all the time she spent in the damn cafe. It was called Sandra’s, by the way. She had several pretty young women working for her and one skinny, pale gay fella. They were all real nice and would chat with you or leave you alone as you wished. I always exchanged a few pleasantries before I started reading and before I left. I was like that.

It’s important here to add that Sandra and I had sexual relationship, I used to drop back by around closing time and that led to a lot of conversations and eventually to dinner then to the bedroom. She was divorced with no kids and I’m widowed with two who are grown. There were no strings attached, neither of us was looking for anything more than the comfort and closeness that sex provides. I supposed it could turn into something else someday but I doubted it. We were both too jealous of our privacy. I slept with one of Sandra’s employees once but Sandra found out and got mad. Not because she claimed any ownership over me but because the woman in question was damn near 35 years my junior. I’m 57 but like Sandra I look a lot younger. That’s what people tell me anyway.

I’m retired. I was a professor (English literature) at Colombia for 25 years but three years ago gave it up when I got a sizable inheritance. My wife Edna had died a year earlier from cancer and my heart wasn’t in teaching anymore and with money no longer a concern I just  decided to take it easy for once in my life. I’d worked myself pretty hard, not only teaching but writing. I’ve had a lot of book reviews published as well as scholarly papers on various writers and such. People ask me why I haven’t written a novel but the truth is I just don’t have it in me. You’ve got to know your limitations.

Mostly in those day I just liked to go to the gym, the theater, movies, museums and sip coffee at Sandra’s.

Anyway all of this so far has been preamble to my main story which is about how I killed a guy.  The murder took place about three months ago and the police have no leads so it’s highly likely I’ll ever be suspected let alone indicted.

It’s really a simple story. Logan Ellsworth was Sandra’s lover back when she lived upstate before moving to New York city and opening her cafe. This is all after her divorce. The fling with Logan was one of those rebound relationships for both of them him, Logan having just broken up with his long time girlfriend. As Sandra tells it they were pretty hot and heavy for a couple of months but Sandra cooled off  because other than sex they had zero in common and he seemed to be falling for her. The break up was amicable enough at the time and all seemed forgotten when Sandra took her divorce settlement and moved to the big city.

It was years later that Ellsworth called her out of the blue and said he’d moved to New York and suggested they get together for all times’s sake. Sandra figured why not and invited him to her cafe. According to Sandra they had a nice chat about their few mutual friends and the berg they’d lived in but when it was time for good-bye-nice-catching-up-with-ya, Ellsworth asked if she’d like to go to dinner and the theater some night. Sandra told him point blank that she wasn’t interested. “I enjoyed our time together but it’s pretty clear we’re not meant to be together,” she told him. Logan looked crestfallen, she said, but he said he understood, gave her a peck on the cheek and left. That seemed that.

A couple of days later  Ellsworth called and asked if she’d changed her mind. Sandra thought this odd, not to mention annoying, and told him that no she hadn’t and was busy and hung up. He called again two days later and asked Sandra if she’s checked her mail. No and what the hell was he asking for? Just take a look at the envelope from me and call me at the number on the slip of paper. Sandra hung up thinking Logan Ellsworth had gone off his rocker. A few hours later the mail comes and she ripped into this big manilla envelope that just had Logan Ellsworth for the return address. Inside there was the slip of paper with a phone number on it and several pictures of Sandra in the nude.

Sandra was beside herself, for one thing she didn’t ever remember the pictures being taken nor any pictures of her naked ever being taken. After calming down she called Logan and angrily asked him where the photos came from and what he wanted. Logan reminded her of a time they had been drinking margaritas and they woke up the next morning with hellacious hangovers and little memory of the night before. Well, he told her, “I wasn’t nearly as smashed as you were and I decided a photo session was in order. There’s also video of me having my way with you.”

“So what do you want?” Sandra asked.

“The question is,” he replied, “what do you want? Do you want to start up with me again like we were before or do you want me to send the photos and videos around or do you want to give me $5,000? Three choices, not bad.”

Sandra was stunned. She was living an idyllic life and it had been shattered by this bastard who had taken advantage of her. One night of excessive drinking was all it had taken. All of Ellsworth’s choices were unacceptable. The very idea of so much as touching him made her nauseous. Friends and family seeing the type of pictures he had was beyond humiliating. The $5,000 was doable but it would hurt her bank account a little and her pride a lot. Plus what guarantee did she have he wouldn’t come back later for more money?

“I need to think about this for a bit, Logan,” Sandra finally said.

“Understandable. I’ll check back with you in 48 hours but I’ll want an answer then. And if you don’t mind I’d like to suggest that rekindling our affair is your best option.”

“Thanks for the tip, Logan,” Sandra answered sarcastically and then hung up.

That night I was alone in the cafe with Sandra at closing time helping her clean up when she dropped a bowl. It crashed on the floor and shattered and Sandra broke into tears.

“Goodness me, Sandra, it’s just a bowl,” I said light heartedly. But Sandra continued weeping. I sat her down and she told me the about Logan. She was being blackmailed so I suggested contacting the police. “I can’t do that. Logan promised that if got so much as a whiff of the cops, let alone was arrested his brother would sent out the pictures and video.

That night I tossed and turned for a good two hours, too angry at the scumbag to sleep. Eventually I did doze off and slept deeply for six hours. When I woke up I decided that the only course of action was to kill Logan Ellsworth.

It was easy enough to justify. This was a horrible man who was ruining the life of a sweet, loving woman. It was entirely probable that he was similarly ruining other lives, or would if given the chance. The world would be improved just a bit by his death and would be the worse for his continued existence. Besides, I realized I was falling in love with Sandra. I doubted anything would come from it but I’d do anything for her. Mind you, I'd killed once before, in Vietnam but had never imagined a scenario, other than self defense, that would prompt me to do it again. Love is a pretty powerful drug. With drugs you've got to know your limitations, I knew mine.

Over breakfast I concocted a plan. I had a gun that my brother gave me years ago. I’d taken it reluctantly and it had been in the back of a closet ever since. Now it was going to be put to use. I’d break into his apartment, shoot the bastard and make it look like like a robbery. I wouldn’t be a suspect because there was no connection between us. All I’d need was for Sandra to get his address which of course meant that she’d have to agree to the plan. I wasn’t sure if she would.

To my mild surprise Sandra was enthusiastic about me killing Ellsworth. “It’ll be easy, I’ll tell Logan that I’ve decided that I'll have sex with him again. Then I’ll suggest we rendezvous at his place and he’ll give me his address. Simple.”

I said that she’d have to make the first “date” a few days off so I could, as they say in the movies, “case the joint.”  I wanted to do the deed before Sandra was forced to follow through on her promise.

“Are you sure you can go through with this? You don’t exactly strike me as the criminal type.”

“No I guess I’m not but the way I feel about this jerk will help me overcome any second thoughts. I’d do anything for you, Sandra. I've killed before, albeit in war time, but I can do it again -- for you.”

“Goodness, you’re not falling in love with me, are you?”

I couldn’t tell if she was teasing, or concerned, or hopeful.

To be safe I replied, “I love you Sandra, as I do many others, falling in love is a purely romantic notion and I…” Here my voice trailed off and I could only look at Sandra helplessly.

“You don’t have to say anything more. You didn’t have to say anything in the first place. We’re in a good enough place together without putting labels on it.”

I was never so nervous in my life as I was the night I killed a man in cold blood. The plan was simple. Around the time Sandra was to pay Logan his first visit I’d knock on his apartment door. When he answered I’d stick the gun in his face and tell him to back into the apartment. Once he was in I’d shoot him in the chest. The noise would have been a problem but the apartments were new and Ellsworth was the first tenant on his floor. After doing the deed I’d ransack the place to make it look like it had been a robbery.

Everything went as planned. Ellsworth opened, I pointed the gun, he walked backwards into the apartment and I got ready to pull the trigger. “What the hell man, there’s no need to shoot me, take whatever you want!” The poor guy was in tears and shaking like a leaf on a windy day. “This is for what you’re trying to do to Sandra!” I said loudly and theatrically. There was a second before I pulled the trigger and Ellsworth had a quizzical look on his face. “My why —” he managed to get out before I shot him. Then I gave the place a good going over.

I was exhilarated. I’d taken a man’s life but it had been a bad man and I’d killed him for a good reason. Love for Sandra surged through my body. I did wonder what he was starting to say. “My” for sure, then either “why” or the beginning of a word like “white” or “wine” or “wife.” None of them made sense. I struggled with not caring what he was going to say and being oddly curious. What did it matter what the bastard was going to say? But I couldn’t help but wonder….

I was finishing up when I decided that to make it look good I should take any money in his wallet. He had a big thick wallet with a fair amount of cash, I grabbed all of it. Then I looked at his identification and credit cards. Much to my shock they all had the same name: Peter Lescher.
Lescher was Sandra’s last name.

All the adrenaline that had been coursing through me stopped cold. I felt devoid of blood, of life, of meaning. I felt like an empty vessel with sorrow and despair flowing through.

“My wife…” was clearly what the man — who was no longer Ellsworth, if there was ever such a person — was starting to say when I took his life.

Maybe Peter Lescher was the worst human being on the planet, a man who deserved death. But maybe he was a perfectly innocent victim, a man who’d never harmed a fly.  I’d been used.

Gradually the shock was joined by anger and that anger was directed squarely at Sandra. She’d set me up to kill. But why? I aimed to find out.

I walked the ten blocks to Sandra’s apartment. I pounded on the door and when there was no answer shouted her name. Then I went down to the cafe to see if she was hanging our there but it was closed up tight.

I never saw Sandra again.

The next month was a nightmare. I was in a constant state of depression. A depression that throbbed like a migraine. I ate little, showered rarely, went nowhere and saw no one. There had been a story in the papers about the murder. The victim was Peter Lescher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who’d been in town on business. He was subletting the apartment for a month. Lescher was survived by his wife Sandra and their three children. Three children! The story mentioned that he was separated from his wife but said nothing of divorce and certainly nothing about her being in New York and not a word about her setting up some poor sap to kill her husband.  I did a google search and found that Lescher was an upstanding citizen involved in various civic enterprises and that in addition to his work as a financial consultant he invested in real estate. Lescher was also his sons’ little league coach and active  in the PTA. This is the man I shot in the chest.

Suicide seemed a reasonable out. I’d lost a lover and she’d turned out to be as far removed from the person I knew as is imaginable. I’d killed a man. A good man. It’s true that Sandra had set me up, but I’d pulled the trigger. Even if he had been Logan Ellsworth and done everything Sandra described I had no right to be his executioner. What the hell was I thinking? I could never again sleep soundly, I could never go a day without thinking about Peter Lescher. I could never not think of myself as a murderer.

I could have turned myself in and a certain justice would be done but I was miserable enough as a “free man” I didn’t need prison bars when I was imprisoned in my own hell.

The depression has never left but it did finally ease up enough that my anger toward Sandra came bubbling to the surface. I became obsessed with her real story and so hired the best private investigator I could find, a man by the name of Seth Dervish. I told him the whole story, omitting my part in the murder, suggesting that she’d done the deed or perhaps had a confederate.

A months later Dervish reported back to me. Sandra Lescher (nee Hopkins) had been married to Peter for 15 seemingly happy years when she suddenly skipped town a few years ago. Sandra had done some work for her husband and before leaving pilfered about $200,000 in investor money. She also raided their savings account. Sandra came to New York and opened her cafe. It took awhile before Peter tracked her down and when he did he offered to take her back with no repercussions for her thievery.  When her husband was killed, Sandra went back to Milwaukee and stayed with her family long enough to collect on Peter’s life insurance policy. Then she cleaned out more of the family money and — without the slightest regard for her three children — took off again. Dervish tracked her to San Francisco but believed that once there she bought a new identity.

Today I'm packing a bag and catching a flight for San Francisco. Once there I aim to track down Sarah. When I do I'll kill again but this time I'll know for a fact that the person whose life I'm taking deserves to die.  Yes, I feel like I'm in a 1940s film noir and I probably won't get away with this murder and I'll probably spend  the rest of my days behind bars, but the only way I can square killing Peter Lescher is by taking out the real cause of his death. You've got to know your limitations and I'm just getting acquainted with mine.

11 October 2017

Virgil in the Rain With a Gun



Virgil stood on the corner of Virginia and Grove streets in the pouring rain with a gun dangling from his right hand. His head was bowed, his shoulders slumped, but his legs were firm and spread the perfect distance to assure maximum balance.

I had just gotten out of Nicky Johnson’s VW Beetle having recognized Virgil as we drove by. I was no more than ten feet from him. I opened my umbrella before doing anything else then took a step toward him and said, “hey there Virgil, what’s going on?”

He turned slowly and looked at me as if I just interrupted something important. His frown held firm and his eyes squinted but he said nothing.

“Whatchya doin’ and what’s with the gun? Need a ride?” The rain was coming down harder. Virgil wiped some from his forehead. He was soaking wet. The gun just dangled. Cold, dark and wet.

Still he said nothing.

It was the part of dusk when it's getting darker every second.

“You okay, buddy? What’s up?”

I’d known Virgil since we were in the first grade together. He’d always been the sweetest, gentlest guy in the world. Everyone liked him and he seemed to have it all. He came from a successful, loving, tight-knit family of seven. Virgil was the middle of the five children and his siblings were just as nice as Virgil and as smart too. Virgil was always a straight A student and a good athlete and popular with the girls. One other thing about Virgil was that he was loquacious and could and would talk about any topic under the sun but without dominating conversations. All this is to say that what I was witnessing was not only bizarre behavior but totally out of character for Virgil.

Eventually he broke into a half smile and said softly, “hi Graham.” Virgil looked like he was actively, physically looking for the words to say next but couldn’t find them. Finally, he just shrugged his shoulders. Then looked toward the VW where Nicky, who’d been driving, was getting out on the driver’s side. Nicky put on a hooded, yellow raincoat that was too small for him. Approaching us he asked, “so Virgil, dude, what’s going on, man?” That was Nicky, littering his speech with dude and man, and other words that made him sound more hippie than the boy genius that he was. Nicky had been accepted to Harvard as a sophomore but decided he didn’t want to deprive himself of the full high school experience. We were all seniors at Berkeley High.

Virgil didn’t respond to Nicky so I tried. “What’s happening, Virgil?”

Virgil looked straight down, his shoulders hunched forward, he emitted a great sigh. Then his head snapped up and he said, “isn’t it weird how you two are trying to act all normal and not saying anything about the fact that I have a gun or that I’m standing out in the pouring rain? I mean, let’s be honest. I’m sure you’re curious.”

“Okay dude,” Nicky said the lightness gone from his voice, “what’s with the gun?”

Virgil took the gun in both hands and, standing perfectly erect, pointed it at the space between where Nicky and I were standing as if he were aiming at a target. “Pow, pow,” he said still holding the gun.

I don’t know why but I wasn’t scared. As strange as Virgil was acting I knew him well enough to believe with all my heart that he wasn’t going to do Nicky or I any harm. He just pointed the gun into the distance occasionally saying “pow, pow” in a soft voice.

“Dude, maybe,” Nicky finally suggested, “you should put the gun away. Someone might see you pointing it and call the cops, or for that matter a cop might come along.”

Virgil looked at Nicky and smiled obligingly, lowering the gun to his side, but then quickly raised it again and put the barrel in his mouth.

“What the fuck, Virg?” I said a little too excitedly. Nicky, meanwhile, remained calm and said, “cut the shit, man, what are you trying to prove?”

Again Virgil put the gun to his side. The wind picked up and neither umbrellas nor raincoats was going to keep any of his dry. Didn’t matter to Virgil, he was soaked to the bone. We just stared at him and he stared straight into the distance.

“Graham, man, I’m getting wet and cold, let’s get the hell out of here and leave Virgil to his fate, whatever the hell that is.” I could tell Nicky didn’t really want to split, he was trying to get a rise out of Virgil, but I could also tell that Virgil was not about to fall for any mind games. The proof followed when Virgil said, “yeah, what about I see you guys later, no use you hanging around here getting wet. Plus its a goddamned school night.”

That was the first time I’d ever heard Virgil swear, it was damn near as shocking as seeing him with the gun.

“Dude, Virgil Morton cussing, I never thought I’d live to see the day, man. This really is a special occasion. Come on, Virgil let’s go to Oscar’s and get a burger and fries and talk things out.”

“No dice, Nicky. Anyway, I’m not hungry,” Virgil replied.

I’d been growing increasingly irritated with the whole scene. I had a raging alcoholic mother at home, an emotionally absent father and a brother fighting in Vietnam so emotionally I was always pretty strung out and ready to snap. I’d held it together because it was Virgil and he was a stable influence in my life. He was one of the last people on earth I needed to see whig out so I wanted to believe this would all be over soon with a simple and logical explanation. But it kept stretching out and I couldn’t take it.

“Enough!” I yelled. “This bullshit has gone on long enough. For crying out loud Virgil, tell us what the hell you’re doing with that gun and come in out of the rain. This is just too fucked up and it’s not right and it's not you.”

Virgil turned to me and he pointed the gun at his temple and pulled the trigger. There was a loud click. “The first chamber is empty the rest have bullets in them,” he said calmly. “I’m thinking of putting one of the bullets through my head so that I’ll be dead. Clear enough?” I couldn’t believe how calm he was and how matter of factly he spoke. He was staring straight at me, eyes locked to mine as if to demonstrate how serious he was.

“But why?” I asked meekly.

“You’ve no idea what goes on in my brain. That’s all I’ve gotta say to you or to Nicky or anyone else. I really appreciate your concern but you can’t be any part of this anymore. I need to sort this out myself.”

“But you can’t kill yourself,” I pleaded.

“The hell I can’t. If that’s what I decide to do — ”

Virgil was so focused on me that he hadn’t noticed Nicky who’d snuck behind him, the wind and rain being perfect covers for his stealth. Nicky grabbed the pistol and with the element of surprise easily wrested it away from Virgil. He ran up the street half a block and tossed the gun on the roof of a house.

Virgil stood helplessly and started to sob. It had all happened so fast. Situation diffused but now Virgil was crying his eyes out.

Nicky led him by the arm to the VW and I followed. Nicky forced Virgil into the passenger seat and I got in the back. Virgil was steadily sobbing. “I’ll take you home dude, if you wanna talk a little bit first you can.”

“You're not going to tell my parents about this, are you?”

“It’s none of our business to say anything to anybody, but listen dude, you’re going to need to talk to somebody about this.”

Nicky started to drive, it was only a few blocks to Virgil’s house. We took a right turn on Hearst when out of nowhere a station wagon came fishtailing toward us. Nicky tried to swerve his VW stalled. The station wagon slammed right into the front of the VW. Nicky was killed instantly and Virgil died in the hospital that night, never having regained consciousness after the crash. I came away with a broken collarbone and a fractured wrist.

Yeah.

We were seniors in high school seniors four months from graduation. Nicky was finally going to go to Harvard and Virgil had been accepted at Cal on a football scholarship. I was headed for a state college.

I’ve lived with the remembrance of that night for 47 years. Sure I’ve got a lot of wonderful memories of growing up with Virgil but I’m haunted by that night and the unbelievability of him thinking of offing himself and of his being tortured by demons. There’d never been a clue. After, I didn’t discuss with it his family. It never seemed my place. Whether they knew about the gun and whatever was torturing him I’ll never know. What’s the point talking about it?

I remember Nicky too and how cooly he handled the situation, disarming Virgil so neatly. Of course I think of the lost potential of Nicky who everyone agreed was headed for great things. How could he not be with a brain that mastered calculus as a high school freshman and had understood basic economics in junior high.

The mystery of Virgil’s behavior and the accident added to the misery I lived with at home and made escape to college even more welcome. Of course I couldn’t bury those feelings with distance so I took quite quickly to the drinking scene at college and later delved into drugs. I managed to graduate and get a job but it was years before I was able to straighten myself out through 12 step programs and psychotherapy.

Certain pains never go away. I think of Virgil spending his last moments, crying uncontrollably over a torment known only to him. I think of Nicky doing a good deed and dying in the process. I think of how weird and unfair and cruel and capricious life is. I think about Virgil and Nicky and never make sense of it.  Maybe I'm not supposed to.

08 October 2017

A Remote Control Mysteriously Falls and Ghosts are Considered Culpable

I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits or poltergeists. But I also don’t understand how the remote control suddenly fell from the credenza and landed so far away and so loudly.

I’ve spent much of the past few hours alone at home doing nothing. Being depressed does not count as doing anything. At the time the remote fell I was lying on the sofa listing in my head the NFL teams I hate the most. I don’t even watch the NFL anymore.  I was deep in a malaise. The falling remote snapped me out of it as it was likely meant to do. I write that assuming something caused the remote to fall, other than it being too close to the edge. And if it was too close to the edge, what made it finally fall? There was no earthquake or strong wind. All was still.

I still don’t believe in ghosts but I don’t know how that damn remote fell. I reiterate it’s falling did succeed in snapping me out of my doldrums, at least long enough to write this and whatever follows.

I’ve been surprisingly free of depression this past week. My rash has finally cleared up, so that could be a contributing factor. I had foot surgery on Thursday. There was a bone in my right foot near the little toe that was pushing against the side of my foot causing painful callouses. I could have gone on making periodic visits to the podiatrist to have them removed but I opted for surgery to get it over and done with. I was told that I’d be kept from running for ten days. A long time but worth it.

The surgery took 15 minutes and thanks to modern medicine, it was pain free. I’ve been living with a large bandage on my foot and have had to severely reduce walking. I’ve also had to keep said foot elevated as often as possible. Vicodin has been provided for pain relief but thankfully I’ve not had to avail myself.

So the remote fell for no apparent reason. I still don’t know why.

Yesterday I went to see a film called Lucky starring the late Harry Dean Stanton in his final role. I liked it. I then came home and watched three episodes of House of Cards thus completing season four. Later the missus and I watched the original Blade Runner film in preparation for today seeing the sequel. That was simply way too much time looking at screens. I’ve been doing too much of that lately between House of Cards, the Vietnam documentary and two short run HBO shows, The Deuce and Vice Principals. It’s going to eat up my October and I don’t like it. No new shows after I finish these. Today other than the new Blade Runner film, all I’m watching is the new Simpsons episode. By the way, neither the missus nor I particularly cared for Blade Runner 2049. It was bloated. The original clocked in at under two hours and told a better story with much better developed characters. This always seems to happen with 21st century remakes and sequels, they wallow in excess and the story gets lost.

The wife has come home. I told her about the remote. She doesn’t believe in ghosts either but shares my bafflement about what took place. Seeing her beautiful face has cheered me considerably, though not enough to totally shake the angry clench of depression.

It could be that the spirit of dead ancestor (dad?) or friend (Paul?) or literary hero (Kerouac) knocked the remote over to shake me up — well, it worked — knowing I needed to write, or at least do something. Giving in to depression is all to easy as it is a powerful force. Right now it’s taking all my wits and strength to write these meager words.

Maybe the remote falling was a portend of things to come as Halloween approaches. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster himself will make an appearance in the coming days or Count Dracula will come by for a drink. Maybe a Werewolf will come calling or an angry mummy.

As a child I loved Halloween. It was colorful, it was different, there were stories, there were movies and cartoons and ultimately there was lots of candy. Now Halloween is a harbinger of the real holiday season with Thanksgiving following in three or so weeks and Christmas within a month of that.

Why on Earth did that remote fall? There’s no way it was sitting so precariously on the edge (if on the edge it even was) that the merest molecule passing by would cause its tumble.

I can’t figure it out but I am grateful because in consequence I got off my ass and wrote a little bit. In fact, maybe next I’ll peck away at the novel of mine….

02 October 2017

Reflections During Sunday Afternoon Melancholia, The a Bit More on Monday

Beefsteak tomatoes, like in the sandwich the missus made.


I can write a little bit. I think I need to now. It’s the overlap between late afternoon and early evening on a Sunday. That time when the weekend feels over. The work week looms, the worst of it being the Monday morning alarm. It doesn’t help the I’m already depressed. I wasn’t yesterday but yesterday I ran eight miles. I can’t run eight miles everyday.

The morning started nicely enough with watching The Arsenal on the telly. They defeated Brighton, 2-0. Then it was a nap. The late morning nap on weekends is not unusual for me. The wife and I then went grocery shopping. She dropped me at home to do some more shopping. Feeling ambitious I cleaned the toilet, took out the recycling  and cleaned the bin that we put our tin, bottle and plastic recyclables. I then washed two loads of clothes.

Completing these chores made me feel better though not enough to relieve the depression. A movie seemed in order so I looked over my extensive DVD collections (about 250 titles) and finally selected Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson. It’s harder for me to watch foreign language films when depressed and it’s better for me to watch something relatively light. MK was the perfect choice because its a brilliant film that gets better with each subsequent viewing.

During the film the wife brought me a delicious snack — a fried egg with a slice of beefsteak tomato on toast. My darling bride of 30 years also informed me that she’d at last gotten around to reading my blog posts from our Europe trip of a couple of months ago. She really enjoyed them and made a point to tell me that I’m a really good writer. Her praise means more to me than anyone else’s because she is a tough critic. I love her.

Finished with the film I went back to chores by emptying and re-loading the dishwasher and filling my pill organizer for the week. I take enough meds that I require one. Pill for sleep, pill for panic, pill for depression and one for acid reflux. All but the pill for depression do the job. The psychiatrist and I are working on that. I actually hate taking pills and balk whenever one is prescribed. But I also believe in following doctor’s orders and the results speak for themselves. I appreciate the fact that I’m no longer kept awake by acid making its way up my esophagus or by insomnia. I also have been free of panic attacks for nearly a year with just a handful of anxiety attacks.

Next up was the Sunday New York Times. I no longer read it cover-to-cover. I do miss the days when I read two or three newspapers a day but I appreciate the convenience of getting my news on the internet. Progress.

Finally I started writing this. I’ll finish in a bit and then do my second set of stretches for the day. It’s important for me to stretch on non-running days. Then I’ll crack open a book and read for a bit. Later I’ll dive into season four of House of Cards. I started watching the series from the beginning after we got back from Europe getting through an episode a day on average. However the Vietnam War documentary series on PBS (which I wrote about in my previous post) kept me away from it for nearly two weeks.

Eventually it’ll be bedtime as this melancholy Sunday winds down. I’ll struggle out of bed in the morning (I assume here that I wont die in my sleep) and it’ll be off to work. I’ve no idea how I’ll feel. Of course, I’m depressed on some days and on others I’m “up” and there are even some days when I feel quite average and my mood leaves itself open to events of the day.

It seems I’m drawing to a close in this writing. I rather hate to stop because its distracted me from my depression. When I do stop I might try to find something to do. That may be impossible. I could be too low to manage a thing. It might be just a matter of sitting and staring at a spot on the floor. The wife is running errands so I don’t have her to help prod me.

Well I’ve got to stop now regardless and the last thing I write is that I hope for the best for the rest of this day and try to remind myself I have a rich and wonderful life.

********************************************************************************

I resume this writing on Monday. I’m between classes. I slept well. In one dream I was a member of the Seinfeld crew. I was the lone witness to George fighting of a group of teenaged assailants. Maybe I’ve watched too many Seinfeld re-runs.

My morning commute was relatively uneventful. I had the best of Simon and Garfunkel on my head phones and read some Thomas Wolfe short stories. At one point the word sparrow appeared in a song just moments after I read it in the book. Who says there’s no such thing as a coincidence?

Of course I woke up this morning to news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The saddest thing is how unsurprising these horrific events have become. The impotence of the outrage is also frustrating. Nothing seems to get done, nothing changes. My students — who come from all over the world  — are baffled by the ease with which an American can buy a gun and the failure of our legislative bodies to provide reasonable gun control laws. Even coming from other continents they are aware of the NRA, that heinous organization that enables gun slaughter in this country.

My morning class went very well. They are a wonderful group of people. Most every class I’ve had here has been comprised of sweetie pies. I categorize my classes as follows: good, very good, excellent and oh-my-god-I-want-to-take-them-home-with-me. I get a lot in the latter category and very few that are merely good.

I’m about to go eat lunch. I’ll finish this writing and maybe even post it on the blog. If you’re reading this it means I did. If you’re not reading this than how do you know what I’m saying?

After my afternoon class — another group of darlings — I’ll hightail it out of here and head for the gym. Following a brief weeknight workout I’ll return home and make a smoothie and watch Last Week Tonight starring John Oliver (my favorite show on TV) with the missus.

Hearts out to the people of Vegas. Hope against hope that there’s a change a comin’.

30 September 2017

One, Two, Three What Are We Fighting For? Don't Ask Me I Don't Give a Damn, Next Stop is Vietnam....



And he's fighting for Democracy,
He's fighting for the Reds,
He says it's for the peace of all.
He's the one who must decide,
Who's to live and who's to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall
- From The Universal Soldier by Donovan

The Vietnam War is eating up my life right now. I refer to the Ken Burns PBS series that as of this writing I’ve watched seven-tenths of. So many memories come flooding back and I didn’t even fight in it. I was growing up with the war in the background. As a pre teen I assumed that my country was doing the right thing, after all a Democrat was in the White House. But coincident to my becoming a teenager, questions about the war began to arise. This was natural for anyone anywhere but particularly for me growing up in Berkeley. Also many of my cultural heroes — The Beatles, for example — were critics of the war. Most of all though I saw the light (not the one that was supposed to be at the end of the tunnel) and being a news junkie as I was (starting as far back as I can remember) I became well-versed in what was going on in Southeast Asia and could see that US actions were not serving the country’s best interests. It wasn’t long before I began to see that in addition to not needing to be there, we were on the wrong damn side.

Vietnam went hand-in-hand for me with the Civil Rights Movement, the emerging Black Power Movement and the evolution of our culture via rock and roll as a means of questioning the government in particular and authority in general. Vietnam was a symbol of a government that was deeply flawed (Watergate would later offer a glimpse into just how deeply). Two Kennedys and King had been assassinated and  those deaths robbed many young people of hope — just as did government perfidy in Vietnam. But blind patriotism did not give way to cynicism. The late Sixties and early Seventies were filled with a kind of gleeful hope and optimism. A belief that change could come. Liberation movements were not without some success and even failures and setbacks were immediately greeted by action. For example in the wake of the Attica prison riot — in which the authorities responded with excessive force and abuse — the reaction on the left was swift and powerful. There were protests and official investigations. Any slap in the face offered by the establishment would be met by protests and calls for corrective action.

The protest movement was critical to the success of the counter culture. First Civil Rights and later Vietnam brought people together in a spirt of sister and brotherhood. There were not just angry messages of protest but a sense of unity. The oppressed and alienated were not lonely figures plunged into despair, but integral parts of the rallying cries for justice. My participation in demonstrations imbued me with a sense of being part of something greater than myself.

Vietnam is high on a long list of wars that the US should have had no part of. But men will gladly go to war “for their country” as what they perceive as the ultimate act of patriotism. Imagine, blindly going to wherever your country sends you to fight regardless of the reason. The US being invaded? Sign me up. Defending the sovereignty of an ally? Sign me up. Finding to defend a corrupt, racist regime? Sign me up. Invading a foreign enemy to better take advantage of their natural resources? Sign me up. It is literally true that millions of people all will fight in a war without the slightest hesitation and without having a firm grasp of the objective. Oh and they’ll tell you they’re fighting to defend our freedoms.

So many young Americans went to Vietnam in a patriotic fervor. Those who died did so needlessly. Just as did the Americans who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost to the country is in the billions. Money that could be spent on health care, education, scientific research, housing, infrastructure and job creation. Instead those dollars go towards blowing up buildings, villages and humans, often creating permanent enemies for the US.

The wanton destruction in Vietnam was catastrophic and it says quite a bit that the North Vietnamese won despite the battering they took. They were the ones who were fighting, not out of an imagined sense of patriotism, but to defend their homes.

The US has been terrible at foreign policy throughout much of its history, but particularly since the end of World War II. The US is supposedly a beacon of freedom and equality but to many it is a meddlesome bully whose actions have done more to deny freedom than enhance it. Just ask Chile, Iran, Guatemala, The Congo and other places where the US has intervened.

I have resumed this writing after a few days and have now finished watching the Vietnam documentary series. It is amazing to me that something nearly 20 hours in length can be so near perfection. The series captured the experiences of soldiers from of the US, North and South Vietnam and of the Viet Cong as well civilians in all parts of the country. It also explored the American experience during the war and the manner in which the US was torn asunder by opposing views of the war. Every American should watch it.

20 September 2017

They Gotta Go: Current Usages in English that Should be Abolished



There are some things being said in the English language today  that need to go. They’ve either worn out their welcome, been badly used or should never have been uttered in the first place.

Here’s what we need to get rid of:

No worries. I’ve mentioned this one several times before. It never sounds right, it can be flip, it is often unnecessary and it’s lazy language. I hate it.

Grab. The word grab does not have to go entirely, it has its uses but it is being way overused. In addition to people “grabbing something to eat” or “grabbing” lunch or dinner, I’ve heard people say they were going to grab the following: a shower, some sun, a workout. What’s next, is one member of an amorous couple going to suggest to the other that they “grab some love-making”? Here are the first three definitions of grab in Merriam-Webster: 1)  to take or seize by or as if by a sudden motion or grasp….2) to obtain without consideration of what is right or wrong 3) to take hastily grab a bite to eat grab a cab.
Time to start using this one correctly.

Don’t get me wrong and its cousin, what I’m trying to say.  I’ll get you wrong if I want to. But seriously…if you’re worried someone will take something the wrong way, just be clearer. A lot of people will criticize something and then add, “don’t get me wrong, I really like such and such.” How about this, start with I really like such and such then say, however. As for what I’m trying to say, here’s a tip, just say what you’re trying to say and skip the part where you tell us that what you are saying is what you are trying to say.

Awesome and amazing. Can we please reserve the use of these words for things that fill us with awe and amaze us. I’ll never forget the first time I gave a barista my coffee order and he responded with “awesome.” There was nothing the least big “awesome” about ordering a latte. Nothing. Sometimes at work we get credited by admin for our amazing work that week. No one was amazed. Maybe pleased, or happy with or impressed by but not amazed.

Same ole same ole. Just shut up. You sound like a total rube.

More than happy. What are ya, nuts? More than happy? This is usually said by someone who just helped you find a stapler. You thank them and they claim to be have been “more than happy” to have helped. Come on. You probably weren’t even that happy about it. At best you didn’t mind, it was part of your job, but more than happy. Please.

Give 110 per cent. This one always suggests a complete inability to understand the most rudimentary math. As many of us know the maximum one can do is 100%, let’s stop fooling ourselves that there’s any more one can give.

Anyways. Hey moron, there’s no s at the end of anyway. People sound like 12 year olds when they say anyways. SO I guess if you’re 12 or younger, go ahead. Worse yet, people write anyways. There’s no excuse for that.

We're keeping them in our thoughts and prayers. Sure it feels good to say or write this in reference to earthquake, hurricane, fire and shooting victims, but its ultimately pretty empty. For one thing prayers are notoriously useless. People are praying for things all the time and it doesn't change a damn thing. If you believe in god you've got to admit that he does what he wants regardless of your prayers. If you don't believe in god then you should already know that while prayer might feel good it has no practical effect. If I'm ever dispossessed by a natural disaster please keep me in your thoughts long enough to send money then you can go on to thinking about something else. I also wonder what percent of the time a person reacts to a tragedy with the old keeping you in our thoughts and prayers and then gives you no further thoughts and doesn't fit you into any ensuing prayers. I bet it's a lot.

Speak truth to power. No one knows what the hell this even means. It’s seductive because it sounds intelligent and meaningful but really it's just gobbledygook.

Double down. As a blackjack term this has been around for ages and is perfectly appropriate, but in reporting the actions of a politician it is a new term and its being beaten into the ground. Every time a politician re-affirms a position — particularly a controversial one — they have “doubled down” on their previous remarks. What did journalists do before someone came up with double down? Maybe they should look that up and start using some of their old terminology. Else they want to “double down” on their use of double down. Here's some ideas: reiterated, stood behind, repeated, refused to back away from.

Do or do not. There is no try. Yes there is. This one came from Yoda in one of the Star Wars films. For some reason there are people who think this makes sense. It doesn’t. For the record there is: doing; not even trying to do; and trying to do but not succeeding. There's no shame in trying and failing, there is, however, shame in not trying at all or spreading this "do or not do" nonsense.

America is the greatest country in the world. First of all, why would anyone say such a thing? Many Americans do and it sounds stupid, childish, insecure and arrogant. What kind of person pronounces themselves to be the best at something? A boor. Same with a country. It’s unseemingly but Americans do it, particularly American politicians. Secondly: you wanna bet? Think of the country you’re touting as the best. One with Donald Jackass Trump as president, one that carried out genocidal practices against its original occupants, that maintained chattel slavery long after European countries stopped, one that has meddled in other countries’ business repeatedly and to everyone’s detriment (see Chile, Vietnam, Iraq, El Salvador, etc.) one that has a tendency to drop bombs on people of color (Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) while going easy on predominately white counties. One that won't provide universal health care, has a congressional body rife with climate change deniers, the world's largest prison population.... I could go on. Greatest in the world? Not even the greatest in North America.

10 September 2017

A Interview With My Depression



At the suggestion of my psychiatrist I decided to interview my depression to see if I could understand it better. The arrangements were not difficult to make. My depression is never far away and is delighted for any opportunity to visit. What follows is a verbatim transcript of that interview.

Me: First of all depression, thank you for sitting down with me for this conversation.
D: My pleasure.
Me: I’d like to start off by saying, “fuck you!”
D: I understand that and am unfazed by your harshness and vulgarity. Indeed, I rather enjoy it.
Me: So what brings you here, time and time again?
D: I can see where that could be a bit of a poser. Sometimes I feel invited and other times, well frankly I just barge in.
Me: Let’s look those one at a time. How on earth do you ever feel “invited”?
D: It genuinely seems like you want me. I’m not suggesting that you’ve ever said: “come on over” no, it’s much more subtle than that.
Me: Please elaborate.
D: Sometimes there’s an unsettling event in your life such as an argument or confrontation or a disappointment or perhaps bad news, in those cases you open yourself up to me. Your guard is down so its a simple matter to enter.
Me: But why enter at all? Why not just leave me alone?
D: But you’re feeling bad about something, it’s only natural that I show up.
Me: I may be hurt by something, or disappointed or whatever but that does not mean I want or need to go into a full fledged depression.
D: But you’re prone to depression. You’re a vulnerable chap. You take a lot of things in stride but other things knock you off your stride. You’re just waiting to wallow in the pain.
 You may think you don't want me, but part of you does, I believe that.
Me: You do realize that your taking advantage of my pain serves no purpose. It would make far more sense if you just left me alone so that I can work through whatever is bothering me then get on with being happy.
D: That’s not how I work. I like to plant myself in a host who’s -- like I said before — vulnerable. I revel in your pain. I'm sorry, that may seem harsh but that's just what I am.
Me: You’re just a mean son of a bitch, aren’t you?
D: You don’t really think name-calling is going to have the slightest effect on me? Perhaps I should amend that, I rather like it. The more vitriol you spew my way the more empowered I feel. I love off conflict, animus, discord and failure.
Me: I still don’t get what your motive is, what you get out of this.

D: Come now, I’m depression it is my raison d’ĂȘtre. What the hell did you think? You might as well ask why the wind blows. We do what we do.
Me: This conversation has gotten depressing.
D: Thank you.
Me: Okay, earlier you mentioned barging in when I’m not depressed….
D: Yeah that is fun. I just step right in and bring your mood right on down and sit on it.
Me: That’s especially cruel.
D: You flatter me.
Me: How is it you leave it all? Why don’t you become a permanent fixture if you’re so powerful?
D: Hey, I’ve got my weaknesses too, just like everyone else. For example when you run, those endorphins are toxic to me, I have to get the hell out. Also you sometimes get distracted, -- like when you’re teaching or enjoying a film -- and pay no attention to me. That’s frustrating. Then there’s those meds you take, it’s not easy to ignore them. Oh and those sudden upswings in mood you experience -- my bane -- that can turn into a God awful fight. When you’re mood gets elevated I have to bide my time before returning. There are a lot of complications to keeping a person good and depressed. Some folks are easier than others. Some I can’t get to at all, like your wife.
Me: But aren’t there reasons for depression? Like biological ones?
D: Oh absolutely, that biological weakness is what gives an opening. Some people, such as yourself, are prone to depression. It's no use wasting time on others unless some sort of tragedy befalls them.
Me: What about other factors? My psychiatrist and I have talked about some of the issues that might be plaguing me like age and whether I’ve made good use of my life and my childhood.
D: Those all help. Anything that can get you down I can work with. I can even put thoughts into your head such as the fact you’re still an unpublished novelist. And at your age.
Me: Not funny! So you can send bad thoughts to my brain?
D: Sometimes directly to your subconscious.
Me: Aren’t you afraid that the right meds are going to spell your doom? Or successful work in therapy?
D: That kind of stuff is always a threat. I’d appreciate it if you stopped seeing your doctor and went off all medications.
Me: Like I’d do you a favor.
D: Think of it as a challenge.
Me: It’s challenge enough just living with you. You’re like an uninvited, unwanted roommate who’s only ever away for short periods.
D: That’s a lovely way of putting it.
Me: If you were me, what would you do?
D: You really think I’d help you out?
Me: Think of it as a challenge.
D: Hey, that was my line.
Me: You’ve been of very little help. Just know that I’m going to do everything in my power to kick your ass and keep you out for good.
D: Talk, talk, talk.
Me: Once again, fuck you!

04 September 2017

Twice Inspired by Thomas Wolfe, a Man Writes a Novel



I was inspired by something Thomas Wolfe once said to me — yes, the Thomas Wolfe, the late great writer — he said, “Langdon” (for he always called me by my last name) “you must never give up. If you believe you’ve a novel in you, you keep at it, never let any rejections you may receive deter you.”

That was over 40 years ago when I was a young man of but 23 years. It was 1938 and we were enjoying a beer together on a hot late Summer night in New York. Like Thomas I was from the south, though in my case it was Virginia. I had ambitions to be a novelist and was meanwhile  working for the New York Herald Tribune as a copy boy. I would go on to have a byline on the crime beat and later take a job on the New York Post where I rose to city editor. I retired in 1976 when the odious Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. All told I spent 39 years working for two New York papers. Everyone of those calendar years began with my making the New Year’s Resolution that this was the year that I would finish my novel and find a publisher.

Instead of finishing the book — indeed in lieu of even getting beyond so much as a first chapter — I occupied my non working hours being a husband, father and drunkard. The latter of those three made me a poor fit for the former two. Oh I was never abusive or cruel, I loved my dear wife Effie and our children Carla and Hank but I saw so little of them what with work and all the hours I spent keeping my favorite watering holes in business. The problem for me was that I was so damn good at being drunk. No matter how much I imbibed I’d barely slur my words, I’d not suffer black outs and would hardly do or say anything I wouldn’t have while sober. I never even looked at another woman let alone philandered. I would just get good and soused and enjoy the world though a sotted brain. If I'd been a sloppy or angry drunk perhaps I would have seen my problem sooner.

I’m alone now. Hank went off to college five years ago and is now in law school and last year Carla enrolled at Radcliffe. Once she was out of the house Effie left me over my drinking. We’d been married for 31 years. I got the message and went into AA and have a year of sobriety. That’s not good enough for Effie. She’s living with her spinster sister in Connecticut.

So like I was saying at the beginning of this story I was inspired by my old friend from a lifetime ago. (We’d met at a party my well-to-do high society cousin and her husband threw.) Perhaps its obvious that what I was inspired to do was write that novel. Hell I’ve been writing like a house of fire for five months now only taking breaks for eating, sleeping, a little exercise and, of course, AA meetings. I’ve never written so much nor been so happy my whole life (although I’d be a far sight happier if Effie would come back and if my kids would call more often). I think I’ve got another month before the damn thing is finished. The first draft, that is. God knows how long the editing, re-writes and polishing up will take. Given my newspaper experience, that’ll be the easy part for me. Then I’ll need to find someone to put the book in print. I’ve got some connections in the publishing world and even better ones through a few former drinking buddies and colleagues. I also have an old friend — Hewitt Layne — who’ll read the book and give me some suggestions. Hewitt’s a professor of English Literature at Colombia and knows his way around a book, so I’ll be in good hands.

I’ve already determined what course to take if I get roundly rejected: I’ll just keep at it. First I’ll look to other publishers, if they don’t like my opus either I’ll just give the manuscript the once over and see if I can make it to someone’s liking without comprising my artistic integrity. If it still won't pass muster by heavens I’ll sit right back down and write another one. Why not? I’ve got nothing but time on my hands. Having substituted a booze habit for a coffee one I find that I can be lucid all day. All those years I had so few days that didn’t at least include a mild buzz. Now my brain is as sharp as tack all day, just right for a novelist.

My book is about beatnik named Loudon Ellingway living in Greenwich Village in the late Fifties and early Sixties who writes poetry and songs. There are a lot of historical figures who he interacts with like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and Richard Farina. He lives with a fictional female folk singer who’s making it big. A third of the way through the story he’s visited by his Great Great Grandfather’s ghost, whose name is also Loudon Ellingway. The long-ago-deceased had fought and died in the Civil War. The ghost becomes a regular visitor. He’s got a million questions for his young descendant and a million and one pieces of advice. The two even argue a lot, mostly about issues surrounding modern morality. Meanwhile our protagonist goes on with his love affair and poetry and song-writing, more inspired than ever.

I’ll bet you’d like to know how the story ends. Well, you’ll just have to wait for the book to come out, which hopefully won't be too far off.

I don’t know where the damn idea came from. I think it was a dream. It must have been. One morning, shortly after Effie left, I was finishing my morning oatmeal and just staring off into space, my mind a total blank. Then the story popped into my head, at least the part about the beatnik being visited by the ghost of an ancestor. As soon as I got back from my morning AA meeting, inspired by memory of what Wolfe had said, I started writing.

I will add one more thing right now and this is the real crazy part. You'll note I’ve saved it to the end. In the newspaper business this would be called burying the lead but I am longer in that line of work anymore so I’m calling this saving the best for last.

Three days after I started writing the book, I quit. I got stuck on the wording of a sentence and thought, what's the use. I felt I didn’t have it in me. The idea was just damn silly and surely I was too old to write a publishable novel. It was the same kind of feeling I’d succumbed to so many times before on those rare occasions in the past when I’d tried to write fiction. I slumped my head down on my desk and thought about whether I should forget this sobriety stuff and go out for a drink. That depressed me. Then I though that maybe I’d park myself in front of the TV and watch some of the television programs people raved about. That depressed me too. Then I thought of settling into my easy chair and opening a good book. Now this thought cheered me, especially when I decided that re-reading some of Thomas Wolfe would be darn fun. I rose from desk and stepped toward the bookshelf when I felt a strong grip on my shoulder. It was like a huge hand was digging into my flesh. I wrenched myself free and spun around more scared than I’d ever been in my life. But the fear vanished completely when I saw Thomas Wolfe himself standing there looking me in the eye.

“Don’t,” he said firmly. There was a pause, then the great writer said, “don’t quit, don’t stop, don’t forget what I told you. Do you understand, Langdon?”

I don’t know why I wasn’t at all scared anymore. But there was something about this ghostly presence that calmed me. “Yes,” I finally said. “I do.”

“Good.” With that he smiled broadly and vanished. I stood gaping at the empty spot where he had stood — and yes, I am absolutely certain it was him and that it really happened — for a minute. Then I walked back over to my desk and started writing and haven't thought of quitting since.

In the months since I have not questioned the visitation. There’s no need to, I know it really happened. I’ve not had time to question what it means about the afterlife, that’s for later when I’ve earned a break from writing. And yes, I do find it interesting that I’m writing a book about a ghost and I was myself visited by one. And no, I’m not using Thomas Wolfe’s ghost’s visit to inform my book, because, after all, what I’m writing is pure fiction.

18 August 2017

European Vacation Part Four - Good Old England

Charlie George (right) and yours truly
There was that walk along the beach with the wife at dusk in St. Ives. There was cheering and jumping up and down with tens of thousands of others at Emirates Stadium. There was marveling silently at antiquities in the British Museum. There was and always will be England. Loved and admired, hated and reviled. The people are dry and passionless, they are inspired and silly. England is Queen Victoria, England is Monty Python's Flying Circus. England is tea time, soccer hooligans, tradition and innovation. England is gritty gray cities, England is gorgeous green countryside. England is imperialism and it is democracy it is indecipherable accents and Shakespeare. England and how you see it is a reflection on you and what you bring to experiencing it. To me it is always and forever The Beatles, proper football (soccer to you, Yanks) a long and fascinating history and of course fish and chips. I love the place.

We arrived on a Thursday desperately missing Finland and the great time we had there. But the next night it was off to meet my friend Phil, his daughter and a friend to see my favorite footie team, The Arsenal. It was the opening of the English Premier League season and my beloved Gunners were taking on Leicester City. It was my wife's first match and was it a doozy. Within two minutes our heroes were ahead 1-0 but as halftime approached some sloppy passing and poor defending meant a 2-1 deficit. But at the stroke of halftime The Arsenal leveled and we could relax during the interval. Unfortunately they fell back behind early in the second half and I spent nearly a half an hour of playing time worried that my first match in eight years was going to be a loss. But with ten minutes to go Arsenal equalized and a few minutes later went ahead and the stadium was rocking. It was not just mad cheering but singing that ensued as supporters sang odes to the team and individuals. This is part of what makes football so special. Teams have their own chants and songs for their club and also for some of the players. It was thrilling.

Charlie George in his playing days.
The next day four of us were back at the stadium for a tour. The missus instead took in the Tate Modern Museum. The tour was led by my teenage hero one Charlie George who scored the winning goal in the 1971 FA Cup final. I saw the game, his goal and his celebration (laying on the pitch arms spread) on TV and became an instant Arsenal fan. During the tour I had my picture taken with him (thanks, Phil) and got his autograph. I was like a star struck kid. We saw the locker room, coaches' office, the field, the high priced luxury seats and went through the Arsenal museum. After that it was into the team's mega store where I got an Arsenal jacket and another tee shirt.

On Sunday the better half and I were on the train to St. Ives, a resort town on the southwest coast of England. There we spent several days doing very little aside from enjoying the views, going for walks and eating some of the most delectable seafood I've ever had. One day it rained and that was fine too because you can't be running about all the time. The St. Ives Museum was surprisingly good with relics from both world wars, the shipping industry and everything from local fashions to odds and ends from everyday life in the 19th century.

Back to London for a day and another in a long line of great meals we ate on our trip. Yesterday we flew back to New York for a quick visit with youngest daughter and the last of a series of restaurant meals. Today we're back in Berkeley and I'm glad to see oldest daughter and not be living out of a suitcase anymore. I'm rejuvenated for work and refreshed and raring to get back into my routine.

The trip re-enforced my great love for three things: Finland, The Arsenal and my family. It also served to remind me what a lucky bloke I am. That's worth a trip in itself.


09 August 2017

Euro Vacation 2017 Part Three -- In the Home of my Ancestors

The river I fished and swam in.
Jumping into an icy cold river after a hot sauna felt fantastic. It was after 10:00 in the evening and the sun was still out because this is Finland. Three times I emerged from the hot sauna for a refreshing dip. It was the same river I'd been fishing in earlier in the day with my two strapping young nephews. I caught three fish, all undersized and thus all designated for re-assignment as living -- if wounded -- fish. The three of us had fished for a bit near the cabin but later bushwhacked our way through the underbrush to likely spots and challenged the local pike and trout to snag our lures. It was damned fun. As oldest nephew told me it's called fishing not catching so our failure to reel in an eligible fish was no great disappointment. Youngest nephew had wrestled in a large trout the day before so dinner was already settled.

This whole time in Finland has been damned fun. My first trip to the homeland in decades. I met two cousins I'd not seen since we were all still young, bright-eyed bushy-tailed happy optimists. I'm glad to report that we are all still happy and optimistic, despite our years. Perhaps I am less so as even during this wonderful vacation I continue to fight off waves of depression. There have been distractions aplenty so mostly I've been in good spirits.

Seeing my Cousin Jorma in Tampere was a particularly good distraction. He's my senior by about ten years. I'd been questioning how much longer I wanted to suffer through life after this trip, so bad can the mental torment be. But seeing Jorma charge happily through the world gave me hope and a role model. He reminded me of my dear old dad, a non stop liver. Like my Dad he was charming, funny and wise and most of all active. Maybe, I've thought, I can try that. His wife too is a wonder of glee and enthusiasm and his daughter, who was 3 when last I saw her, is a charming, intelligent, successful doctor running a family practice, has two precocious sons of 10 and 14 and a wise and kind husband. The missus and I had a grand time visiting them. If life can be this good then maybe depression can be conquered.

My cousin Helena and I.
Further north in Yliveska we visited my cousin Helena. In my prior visits to Finland she felt like the big sister I never had. She was kind, warm, fun and funny. Today she is still all those things but is also a mother of three and a grandmother of four. Courtesy of one of her daughter's we drove to the nearby town of Nivala where my father and all his siblings were born and raised. Our visit included a stop at the old family home, which is sadly out of the family now. I'd stayed there during my previous visits when my grandmother was still alive and kicking.

In between visiting long lost kin we stayed in the small burg of Paltamo. My late brother's wife's family has a summer cabin there. The setting was too rustic for us citified folk so we spent our night's in town. My sister-in-law was there along with the aforementioned nephews who, like us, live in the Bay Area. The setting was Eden-like. Besides us there was the river, the trees (Finland has gazillions of trees) and a few pesky skeeters and dragon flies. This was the ultimate in getting away from it all and I, who work and live in a thickly packed urban area needed getting away from as much as possible. I was not in heaven (as the mosquitoes attested to) but I was but a few steps below.

For the last few days we've been Helsinki, one of the prettiest big cities in the world. In Finland it feels like cities, towns and hamlets are just dropped from the sky in and around forests, lakes and rivers. You can't go far without be reminded of nature. Even in the thriving metropolis of Finland's capital this is true. The architecture here is stunning, the people are polite and friendly, the public transportation accessible and convenient and everything is clean. Is it perfect? I guess one would have to spend a winter here to answer that.

We've been going from town to town by train and it is a wonderful way to travel. Out the window you can see trees, fields, meadows, more trees, lakes, rivers, trees again, lots of trees, an occasional town, forests, trees and did I mention trees? It's gorgeous. I also saw a bear. Just a glimpse, but damn that was cool.

With older relatives I've had to speak the native tongue and though I'm rusty I've managed to get by. Virtually everyone here under 50 speaks English and many of them speak it better than Americans do. Still I've used the lingo in a few transactions in stores and at restaurants etc. If we stayed longer I might start making my way toward fluency but as it is we're out of here today. Onto London and a football match, then to Cornwall to stare at the sea.

My God I'm having fun.

31 July 2017

Euro Vacation 2017 Part Two - No Explanations nor Excuses for the Nine Days it Took to Post Something (Maybe I was Kidnapped, You Never Know)

Beautiful Amsterdam.
There was an Asian woman in a Berlin mall sitting and reading The Diary of Anne Frank in English.
There was me eating Italian food in a Mexican restaurant in Berlin.
There was a Syrian refugee waiting on us at a seafood restaurant in Berlin who spoke excellent English.

That was all after Amsterdam which, by the way, has emerged as one of my favorite cities in the world. Top five for sure. Everyone speaks English, the signs are in English, the menus, the directions. The Dutch are friendly. The streets are cleaned and organized and the public transportation system runs like a dream. An incredible number of people in Amsterdam ride bikes and for the most part do so in designated bike lanes. Unlike bicyclists in Berkeley who run lights and stop signs and ride on sidewalks, Dutch cyclists obey rules. I could have kissed all of them. Plus they ride functional bikes at moderate speeds purposefully. There are trees, parks and canals everywhere, a model city to be sure.

One night we ate a place called the Seafood Bar. The first of its kind opened just five years before as a take away place but now there are four in Amsterdam alone and they are jam packed. It's no wonder, the food is delicious. No it's better than that. Also it comes in sufficient quantities and is reasonably priced for such fine cuisine. Me, I love seafood. 

From the Reijks Museum.
While in Amsterdam we went to the Van Gogh Museum which was both fine and dandy and we also went to the Reijks Museum which was fantastic and dandy. I loved the Rembrandts -- literally every one -- and most of the works of his proteges. There were also treasures from the past and works from earlier and later centuries. One visit couldn't cover it all. We missed the tour at the Anne Frank House as it was booked and we had left it till last. I did have the better half snap my picture in front of it and unlike some of the other yahoos there I didn't pose with a grin nor make a duck face. Honestly.

We were in Amsterdam for three days and that was not enough. I'd like to go again for a week, better yet a year. I'd love a year there, it would give time to explore other parts of the Netherlands. We got to Amsterdam by train from London where we stopped overnight. Our train trip included a pit stop in Brussels. From what I could see in that blink of an eye it's a town worth getting better acquainted with.

From Amsterdam we took a train to Berlin. This was a local that stopped at every city, town, village, hamlet, farmhouse, outhouse and chicken coop. We didn't mind. Lots of countryside to see and it was darn pretty too. As in Amsterdam we stayed at an Air B&B in Berlin (still here actually, leave in the morning). In both cases we got nice neighborhoods just on the edge of where everything is happening. Short walks to markets, tram stops and cafes.

Unfortunately they've had a bit of heat wave in Berlin and the missus and I are not fans of hot weather. Amsterdam was just right for us, maybe a little chilly with spots of rain but nothing we couldn't handle. Berlin isn't made for hot weather like, say New York. The trams are not air condoned nor is much of anything else. That aside it's been a nice stay. The wife has indulged my passion for history which is especially acute when it comes to World War II. We've been to the Holocaust Memorial and a place called the Topography of Terror which is a museum dedicated to chronicling the Nazi regime. Because of my many decade study of such things there was little they had to teach me, but there were some interesting details here and there and it was instructive to see it all in one place laid out like it is. It's particularly chilling to see all this in Berlin which was the epicenter of Nazi Germany. Walking the streets of Berlin it gives one pause to realize that on these very streets Nazi's marched and sang and brutalized. Around the corner from where we're staying there are imbedded in the sidewalk three plaques remembering three Jews who were taken from nearby homes to their deaths in Auschwitz. We also visited the Berlin Wall Memorial Park, just one of many places where remnants of the wall remain or are honored or both.

Display at the German Film Museum
It wasn't all doom and gloom. For example we saw Berlin's Film and TV Museum which is right up there with similar museums I've seen in Paris and Rome. Particular attention is given to the transcendent Marlene Dietrich along with pioneering German directors such as GW Pabst, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang and Ernest Lubitsch, all of whom escaped Nazi Germany to ply their trade in Hollywood.

Berlin is a cosmopolitan city and this is Summer so one hears voices speaking languages from across the globe. From my job I've learned to detect what many a foreign tongue is and also where a speaker is from based on her or his English accent.

We have thus far managed to avoid being involved in any International Intrigue. No secret coded messages have been placed on our person, no one has slipped us war plans, no spy has died in our midst. Yet. 

Next we go to Finland which for me will be homecoming. Hopefully I'll report here sooner rather than later. 

23 July 2017

Euro Vacation 2017 Part One - But First a Brief Visit in New York

Brooklyn Bridge, photo by author (that's me).

It was just a few steps from JFK to the air-conditioned taxi cab Friday night, but it was time enough to feel the wall of heat. From the cab to the hotel there were a few more steps and more of the New York city heat wave. No thanks. To me anything over 70 degrees is just showing off, to be in the 80s AT NIGHT with a good bit of humidity mixed in is just ridiculous. But it was only for a few days. Today the temperature was in the upper 70s and thus manageable.

Weather conditions aside the weekend has been marvelous. The main point of the layover was to visit youngest daughter who lives on the Queens/Brooklyn border. We had a grand time with her, including a leisurely brunch on Saturday and chit chatting in her apartment afterwards. Last night the missus and I saw A Doll's House Part 2 starring Laurie Metcalf in her Tony Award winning performance. Chris Cooper was also in the four person cast. This was one of the top three theater productions I've ever seen. The standing ovation at the end was not at all perfunctory but quite sincere.

Before and after the play we had to manage Times Square my least favorite part of New York and indeed one of my least favorite places anywhere. Gaudy, crowded, commercial and a symbol of capitalistic excess. What a blight on a great city. Wish I'd seen Times Square when it was just a special part of Manhattan and not a nightmare television commercial on steroids.

We've been navigating New York on the subway and via Uber and of course on foot. New York is feast for the eyes. The people you see alone are an endless source of entertainment. Beautiful women aplenty but also the bizarre, misshapen, the angry, the sullen, the screaming, the pathetic, the brawny and in all sizes, shapes and colors. Yarmulkes here, hijabs there, priests, buddhists, Hare Krishnas, guys in Yankee caps, Italians, Somalis, and oh so many tourists.

We had delicious New York bagels Saturday.

We visited The Brooklyn Bridge this morning, one of those iconic sites that's far more impressive in person. Youngest daughter took me to the Gangster Museum on the Lower East Side this afternoon. We both have a fondness for gangster lore and films, as does oldest daughter. The museum itself was small and the displays looked slap together by an 8th grader but there was some impressive stuff including bullets from the St. Valentine's Day massacre, a mobster's safe and John Dillinger's death mask. There were two guides who each gave us long spiels on gangster history, especially regarding the building we were in which had been a gangster hangout in the 20s and 30s and was attached to what was then a speakeasy. It was fun.

From there we re-connected with my wife and later had a terrific pizza dinner in Brooklyn. I could hang around New York for days, weeks, months, years, as long as someone did something about the heat waves. But tomorrow morning the missus and I continue our journey with an early morning flight across the Atlantic. We'll have a one night stay in London....well, you'll be reading about all this later -- or not, your choice. I was sad to have just sad goodbye to youngest daughter knowing we'll not see her again until Christmas but I'm excited for her and her life here and for us and this journey which is just beginning.

20 July 2017

This is a Melange of Writings Concluding With News of My Impending Trip

A picture taken near Tampere, Finland, one of the stops on our forthcoming trip.


This first part was written over a week ago.

Ya never know what you can write in eight minutes until you try. I’ve got eight minutes before I have to pack up and go, so we’ll see.

After a long pause it seems the answer might be: not much, but I think it’s probably more along the lines of it depends. The word depends has become somewhat of a punchline these days because its the name of an adult diaper. Speaking of punchlines: Donald Trump. Okay that was too easy unlike being president which apparently — who knew? — is rather difficult. People find that out once its too late. How many people have been good at the job? Only 45 have tried and many have been absolute disasters, as we’ve been seeing since January 20. It seems a certainty that this current president will go down as the worst ever. And go down he will. There’s stiff competition for the worst. Consider the recent George W debacle and the greatest foreign policy blunder in US history (the invasion of Iraq is thus far the worst but Trump’ll likely take a shot on topping or bottoming it). Then there was Warren G Harding. Yikes, that was bad. Don’t forget Andrew Johnson. Abe Lincoln was sandwiched in between two awful presidents, the aforementioned Johnson and one James Buchanan. Truth be told most of our presidents have been more mediocre than bad. And a lot of the good ones have significant marks in the negative column to go along with the good that they accomplished. For example FDR and Japanese internment. Then there was LBJ who did so much good domestically but then again that little business about Vietnam. Nixon actually had some accomplishments but they were totally wiped out not just byWatergate but by the continuation of Vietnam and the bombings in the north and of Cambodia. He ended up way, way way in the debit column.

Eight minutes is up.

I actually tell you within the text when I wrote this next bit.

It’s two days later and now I’ve got a bit more time to write. I’ve been so busy tin lizzy drinks that are fizzy. Leaving next week on a big trip getta grip don’t slip I’m hip. One more cause the rule of three up a tree that’s for me tee heee.

Isn’t auto correct a pain in the arse sometimes? Let’s be clear I do not here make reference to Mr. Otto Korectt. He, by the way, is a prominent, distinguished, local businessman of ill repute whose reputation precedes him and is well known, notorious, beloved, much despised, reviled and entirely anonymous. His actions defy description and took a a lot of courage and show a keen understanding of the issues and mark him as a man to be reckoned with, his future is ahead of him and his past behind him. In fact my own future is behind me, but not my past, which I’m looking forward to, I’m living in a state of flux which is one of the contiguous 49 states. Flux produces hard-working Americans who look out for one another and know the value of a dollar. Fluxians are kind, greedy, selfless, selfish people who tirelessly work at being lazy. They believe that procrastinating should be put off to another day — no they don’t.

The next three paragraphs were written earlier this week.

A typical day in the Johnson household begins with dawn. Hours pass by at a 60 minute rate and eventually dusk signals the end of daylight and the beginning of evening which is ceremoniously marked by the Johnsons with the turning on of lights. The Johnson’s also sleep.

But who among us has not imagined necrophilia followed promptly by cannibalism? Come on, you know you have. We’re all human and we all have hidden desires to sexually ravage then devour the deceased. Don’t we? Surely I’m not alone in this. Or surly, he was angry and alone in this. Or Shirley, she was alone in this. Sure, Lee.

I kid, of course. Anyone old enough to remember telegrams? I don’t recall ever receiving nor sending one. I have received plaudits and encomiums and heaps of criticism. Let’s all be self effacing. Or self affixing. Or self adhesive. What is the shelf life of the self life?

I wrote this last bit on Thursday July 20, the same day it will be posted.

It is 7/20, thus the eve of my wife and my departure on a month long vacation. We will stop in New York for a few days — where the hot and humid weather will make me miserable — to visit youngest daughter and take in a play. Then it’s off to such locales as Amsterdan, Berlin, Finland and the UK which will include London and Cornwall.

Yes, I am excited and for so many reasons too. One of which is an escape from the daily grind. I need a break from the weekday morning routine — just not having to slap together lunch will be a relief. Mostly I need a respite from commuting. On a good day a commute is tolerable but there are not all that many good commute days. My students I do not need a break from but I could do with a month without grading, lesson planning, photocopying and wrestling rabid wolverines.

In the lead up to the trip I’ve managed not to be depressed and one can assume that travels may well keep the depression at bay — hell, maybe it’s gone for good. Me, cured.

You will be delighted to learn (actually more like mortified) that I plan on regularly blogging on my trip as I have on other occasions see links to European Vacation and Paris in the Labels section to the right on this page. Or not. Entirely up to you.

The problem with this trip will be that I wont want to come back. I prefer Europe to the States. (So why don’t you move there, ya commie bum? I wish I could have long ago, believe me and I hope to be able to soon.) I have strange relationships with the US and with my city of residence, Berkeley. With the latter I have a definite love/hate relationship. Officially I’m proud of Berkeley, but at the same time its a mess and when I reference all the scruffy looking poorly dressed people I do not just mean our sizable homeless population. Berkeley is dominated by 50ish men with ponytails who wear jeans, sandals and a clean but very old shirt. There are also women of retirement age still wearing the dresses they looked cute in in the Sixties. Others look they slapped together their wardrobes from the costumes used in a production of Hair. (How did I get on this topic? Only my psychiatrist knows for sure).

Anyway I’m outta here tomorrow. More to come.

15 July 2017

Memorial Services are Discussed, Particularly One Attended Today



It’s hard to get a memorial service right. I’ve been to a lot lately, two this year alone for good friends.  I was at one for a friend about six years ago that was nearly perfect. One feature of a good service is that there’s no “open mic” at the end in which anyone in attendance can come up and say a few words. That can drag on forever and some of the people I’ve heard in such situations barely know the deceased, ramble incoherently, merely repeat what others have said or are up there to hear the sound of their own voices. A good memorial service creates an atmosphere in which the dearly departed is celebrated and mourned (emphasis on the former) and tedium does not set in.

I want to a memorial service today and they had an open share at the end but limited it to just a few people. Two were welcome additions and the other was not. The overall service was fine. It was well attended and reasonably well organized. It served to remind me what a great person Paul was and how lucky I was to have been his friend for four decades. It also — and this is inevitable — made me miss him and wish I’d been a better friend. (I wrote about Paul shortly after learning his pancreatic cancer had reach the the-end-is-near stage.)

The first speaker during the service was a disaster. Here’s a sign someone is going to be a poor speaker: they start by telling you that they’re “not very good at this sort of thing.” Then they prove it. The poor guy went on way to long telling pointless stories and sharing uninteresting facts (we could have got by without knowing what bands Paul liked listening to in the 80s). He also had a terrible speaking voice. Not his fault but it only served to acerbate this meandering talk.

A few subsequent speakers were darn good. They included humor in their remarks and kept their comments brief. A few others could have been done without but at least spared us being overly long as the first chap was.

I generally think about the deceased during a memorial service and the times we had together and the impact we had on one another’s lives. But I also can’t help but think about my own memorial service. I’m determined to earn a good one, one in which people can say nice things and genuinely mean them. If not, what the hell, I’ll be dead anyway.

There was a reception afterwards as is usually the case. Post memorial receptions are a lot like retirement or birthday parties, people mingle around chatting and make reference to the honoree but inevitably go on to other topics. It’s only natural. This was a potluck reception. I shy away from potluck food finding it can cause havoc with the digestive system.

I caught up with a few people I’d hadn’t seen in ages, most of whom I probably will never see again. One kept talking about how great his life was these days to the extent that I wasn’t sure if I should believe him or that I should at least question his motives on insisting he was living the good life. There was another person who I hadn’t seen in close to ten years who I was looking forward to exchanging pleasantries with. He’s an author who’s first book I read before meeting him. It was called “If I Never Get Back” and it was fantastic. Years later he wrote a sequel which was one of the worst books I’ve ever read. Paul had shared my opinion on both novels. Nevertheless he’s a good chap — or so I remembered. We shook hands and exchanged, “good to see ya"s. Then he made comment on my purple tie which I was wearing with a black shirt — suitable to the occasion — as the backdrop. He cracked wise about me being Catholic. Fair enough. We were interrupted and when resuming conversation I asked about his daughter. After a brief update he poked fun at the Buddhist prayer beads I wear. That was in lieu of asking about my children or my doings or my opinion on reforming the Julian calendar. So that answered my question about what he’s been doing the past few years  — turning into an asshole.

I checked in with a few more people, all of whom greeted me warmly and I them. Then the missus and I gave hugs and chatted briefly with Paul’s widow, as sweet and wonderful a woman as ever worked the earth. That was enough for me, time to head home.

During the service someone shared a quote from Maya Angelou. I here paraphrase it: people will not remember you for what you said or what you did, but how you made them feel.

While one person today made me feel irritated and disappointed, the focus of the day’s memorial was a man who, for most of our time together — dating back to freshman year in college — made me  happy. Now I'm trying hold on to how happy he often made me and let go of how sad his death is. RIP Paul Tjogas.