30 July 2015

Bad Teacher/Good Teacher: A Few Thoughts and Ideas and Observations on the Noblest of Professions

"There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can't move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies." -- Robert Frost

I teach at an English language school in San Francisco that attracts students from all over the world who enroll for anywhere from a few weeks to a year. Students usually range in age from 17-30, although we get a lot who are older. A few of my colleagues do this: when a student is late to class she or he has to stay outside and write a prescribed number of sentences before returning to class.


So a student has missed what should be considered valuable class time and as a consequence they have to miss more class time. Makes sense. Also writing is being used as a punishment because, after all, writing is a horrible experience that we all want to avoid. (In public schools where I labored for a couple of decades, using writing as punishment went out with 23 skidoo.) Also students, who are paying a helluva lot of money (although in many cases parents, a school or a job are footing the bill) are being "punished."

Some teachers are insecure and feel better about themselves by administering "punishments" and acting as if students are there to please them as opposed to the radical notion of the teacher being there in service of students. These teachers will even say: you owe me such and such number of sentences. They owe you? Who the hell are you to be owed by them? Teachers are the ones who owe. They owe students a quality education.

(I've touched on these types of issues before -- including recently.)

Many teachers -- and I mean in all types of school all over the world -- love the power.  Some teachers too are ego driven. It's all about them. Classes are all about what they do, what they like, what they think. Classes should be about the students and giving them what they want or need. A good teacher is a ring master, juggler, conductor, traffic cop, facilitator. You're there to guide student learning, not ram lessons down their throats. Teachers are there to provide a safe, comfortable, happy place to learn, imparting expertise when needed but making sure that you aren't the constant center of attention. A good teacher inspires students to do their own learning.

I've learned a lot about teaching by witnessing bad teaching practices just as I learned a lot about coaching from watching bad coaches and even picked up parenting no-nos by watching bad parents. At this point in my life I could write a book about teaching. Fortunately the idea bores me silly so I'll be spared rejection slips for that particular project. One thing I would include in this hypothetical book, is a chapter on giving students a sense of ownership in their classes in particular and their education in general. Its amazing how many teachers build a wall between them and their students. From behind that wall they "provide instructions." Good teaching requires a personal touch. Interacting, engaging and questioning students and asking students to engage and interact and question. Students should be the centerpiece of any lesson. Students should participate on as many levels as possible. In my classes that means they discuss readings, their writing, grammar points and listening activities with one another. I just set the damn thing up.

As an aside: I had some excellent teachers and professors. From middle school through high school through undergraduate degree through graduate degree through credential and certificate programs, every really good teacher I've had has possessed and utilized an excellent sense of humor. I've also observed this characteristic in the best teachers I've worked with. I humbly submit that I am known to be quite a wit too. What's the correlation between humor and teaching? I believe that for the most part it reflects that the teacher is personable, makes the class fun. Not incidentally there exists a strong relationship between intelligence and humor.

Making the class "fun" can and is often overdone but the fact is that most students of any age in any setting put a higher premium on learning than having a few yuks. But of course students would rather be enjoying the process and I firmly believe that students learn better when they are, at the very least, enjoying the lesson. The number one enemy of any teacher is boredom and of course a fun lesson combats tedium nicely. One rule I go by is that if I'm bored than so are students and if I'm enjoying class they are too. What is absolutely essential is "reading the room." You've got to be able to tell when students need more of something or need you to move on. Pick up the signs and adjust accordingly. A good teacher -- this depends on the type of class and school -- is willing and able to improvise and change directions during the course of a class. Staying lock step with a lesson that's not working or moving on before students are ready are all too common mistakes that teachers make.

A final word on teaching (for today, anyway, I may get back on this high horse another time) is that the best teachers are innovators who are forever perfecting their craft. Teachers need to be exposed to new ideas and they have to revise, reform and revolutionize their teaching methods and curriculum. Stick with the tried and true for too long and it you'll become stale and uninteresting to yourself and students. Wow yourself. And for the love of god, don't make students write sentences as punishment, that's just asinine. 

29 July 2015

Fun Presidential Facts to Know and Tell

Prior to serving as our nation’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. The rest of the wait staff and the owners were all Chinese so Honest Abe picked up some of the lingo. He’d hoped to visit China after his presidency, a plan foiled by an assassin’s bullet. Ironically, Lincoln’s younger brother Gordon was an executive in a rival Chinese restaurant chain. That chain was the first to introduce Chinese cuisine to the Indian territories. (Apaches had a particular fondness for dim sum.)

Before taking the reigns of the continental army in the American Revolution and later becoming America’s first president, George Washington was a tap dancing enthusiast who gave lessons in his spare time. In fact, during the war Washington would relieve tension for himself and the troops by doing a little soft shoe. However contemporaries noted that Washington was a mediocre dancer at best who got by because of his flamboyant style.

William McKinley had a conjoined twin sister, Esther. They were separated in the days leading up to McKinley’s first senatorial run. In a remarkable bit of historical coincidence, the operation was preformed by Maximums Ford who was the grandfather of future president Gerald Ford. Esther went on to a successful career as a madam in San Diego’s first bordello. At the instant that McKinley was assassinated Esther claimed to have a severe headache, although historians now claim the headache was the result of particularly vicious hangover.

Franklin Roosevelt is the only president to have been elected to four terms though he died early in his fourth term and was succeeded by Harry Truman. FDR, as he was known, contracted polio as an adult and was confined to a wheelchair throughout his presidency. Roosevelt introduced what were called New Deal programs in an effort to combat the Great Depression which was in full swing when he took office. He was also the nation’s commander-in-chief during all but the final months of World War II.

Ronald Reagan is believed to be the only U.S. president whose IQ was in single digits. After working as a below average actor in Hollywood, Reagan ratted on colleagues to the FBI during the Red Scare and gained the support of its treacherous leader, J. Edgar Hoover. Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966 and proceeded to start the dismantling of the state’s previously top rated educational system. Reagan believed government was evil and he is largely responsible for much of today’s paranoia and hatred toward the government. He was much fonder of corporations and believed they should be free to ravage the economy. He was disdainful of the environment, African-Americans and poor people. He liked jellybeans.

27 July 2015

The Freud Wannabe Will Just Sit There Nodding While You Spill Your Guts -- My Grand Experiences With Psychiatrists

You’re just goddamned well sitting there saying nothing. The other idiot in the room is just looking at you. You know he’s not going to say anything, unless your time is up in which case you’ll get the old, “well I see our time is up for today.” He barely moves for 50 minutes. Maybe once he stifles a yawn. Another time he shifts the weight from one ass cheek to the other. Oh and there could be a leg cross, a later uncross of the leg and then a subsequent recross. I think I saw one of the bastards scratch his beard once but that could be a product of my imagination.

You can rattle on for awhile but eventually you run out of steam. You’ve got nothing to work with. It’s like hitting fungos, it wears you out. If you’ve got someone pitching to you, well, no problem you can whack it all over the place. But you’ve got to supply your own power and that can be brutal after a half an hour of horror stories about your childhood or recounting crippling panic or detailing how just god awful depression feels. Fun.

I refer of course to the hours spent — and I had weeks, months worth of them — sitting in a psychiatrist’s office. I saw my first when I was 16, maybe 15. I kept going and going and going and going. I would sit and talk, sit and talk, sit and talk, sit and talk. They would nod and frown, nod and frown, nod and frown. In later years they were forever trying to push meds. One offered me a prescription when I mentioned that my leg bounced a bit just before dozing off. No kidding. The same quack offered me meds for my hypervigilance. Oh great, more numbing. I’m sure these “doctors” were getting a cut from the pharmaceutical companies. Hey you got kids in private school and your staring down the road toward paying college tuition, why not try to scam your patients into taking some harmless pills? Win/win.

Several of the shrinks I saw wore beards. One had a bust of Freud in his office. Come on, you’re just playing to a stereotype buddy. I had two women although one of them was a counselor. She was maybe my age at the time which was mid 20s and very cute and actually knew so little about what she was doing that she offered sympathy and spoke to me and even made suggestions that went beyond the usual: don’t put a bullet in your head. At the end of my last visit she gave me a hug. If all my doctors were like her I would unequivocally tout the benefits of psychiatry. Course she wasn’t a shrink. She was too good for that. I also have to admit that I sometimes wish I’d asked her out. But that’s a horse of a different color.

I do not mean to imply that all the time I spent in analysis was a waste. Just the overwhelming majority of it. Okay so that’s a little harsh. Certainly I needed to do something and visits to a shrink at the very least made me feel like I was taking control in my life. I was able to explore some of the things going on in my brain and come to some self discovery. But I imagine the same type of process with more feedback and more interaction would have been so much more beneficial. And when I refer to interaction I’m not talking about the constant attempts by my last psychiatrist to try to discuss sports with me. Also some of the meds that they peddled saved me from hysterical lunacy. I was very close to raving in subways and over turning trash cans and screaming about imminent alien invasion.

Psychiatry did nothing to get me off drugs and booze. Indeed one shrink tried to convince me that AA was a sham and that it was possible for me to drink again. I should have shoved a bust of Freud down his throat for that one.

I am a passionate advocate of 12 step programs. Of course 12 step is not a cure all but for anyone who wants to amend their behavior and wants to do it for themselves, it offers a method that is so flexible in application that it is suitable for religious fanatics, atheists, conservatives, liberals, the old, the young, intellectuals and teamsters. You take what you want out of it. Everything is suggested.

Of course most people who are addicts don’t recover whether they try 12 steps or not. Well, that’s life. But a lot of people — a lot of people, a helluva lot of people — have their figurative asses saved by regular attendance at meetings.

But I digressed -- as I am want to do.

Once when I was about 27 and in a particularly bleak period of my life I was seeing this young shrink who I’m pretty sure had just started out in the biz. After I blew his mind with the story of my mother’s brand of crazy and how through most of my childhood she kept it in reserve for me, he got this idea. A wonderful, horrible, simply crazzzzzzy idea. It stemmed from the fact that my “case” was unusual and he was a young up and comer who’d never heard such nonsense. What he did was to arrange to start one of my sessions by bringing me into a room full of his older, wiser colleagues where I would tell my story. So he opens the door to this room and there’s this long oval table with about five or six shrinks sitting around it. Weird. I’m supposed to sit down at the, let us say, head of the table. I look at all these stern faces who are studying me like I’m some sort of lab rat and I can’t think of anything to do so I say, “hi.” None of them so much as nod at me. They instead maintain their stern gazes. So I sit. I’m asked to tell about my childhood. I do. One of the doctors is a woman and I note that she’s the only one betrays the slightest bit of reaction to my story. She seems pained by my recollections, which ,given their nature, seems only natural. The others just continue with the blank stares. When I’m done a few of them question me about my tale of a mother who for so many years only had angry profanity laced arguments with imaginary people when I was around and reverted to normal when others came home. They were clearly calling the entire story into question. I wanted to slap them. Anyway I was soon ushered out of the room. My young doctor assured me that he would consult with the old bastards in order to better help me.

Let me tell you something, that help consisted of the usual sitting there saying nothing bullshit that I had already experienced After a few more weeks I decided that  I wasn’t having it. I 'd had to spill my guts in a room full of doubting thomases so I wanted results. I had the insane notion that help was coming. Not more goddamned sullen nods.

So I ended up getting ticked off and telling the guy I was taking a hike. He practically begged me to continue my sessions. He was adamant that we were getting somewhere (I can’t fucking imagine where he thought we were ever going to get). I told him that I was fed up with all the silence and that I could get the same in a library but at least there I could do some reading. The poor bugger was devastated when I walked out mid session never to return.

It was the second and final time I up and left in the middle of an appointment. Why I never did again is beyond me. When I eventually returned and saw another guy I sat there and accepted the silence. By this time I was on meds and I guess I knew that staging a walk out would cut off my supplies and perhaps leave me eventually sobbing in the fetal position on the sidewalk at midnight. So I stuck it  out. Now I'm on milder gentler barely their meds and my medical doctor does the honor of writing my prescriptions. But like I said it wasn't all a waste. Not by a long shot. A few times someone said something that was useful and they did manage to steer my meandering monologues into directions that proved fruitful. One even referred me for a time to a hypnotherapist and that was -- as they say -- a trip. I got to explore memories almost as if I was in a time machine. This I can recommend.

As for most of the time I spent with shrinks, well it was like I was trying to ride an elevator to nirvana, and could only get as far as Chicago.

25 July 2015

Fear and Loathing in My Life

"Shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy." -- From Howl by Allen Ginsberg

My brain is scrambled. Eggs. There are screws loose. Women. I have such mental torture. Chamber.

But what is there, really? What have I got? Can I find some happiness/solace/satisfaction/contentment out of anything? Isn’t health and family enough or do I really really really need something more? Can’t I just sit back or lay back or stand back and enjoy the moment?


Moments are such bullshit. They lie to us. Tell us that everything right now is fine and that this all we have. This right now is a gift and we should swallow it whole and rainbows will shoot out of our orifices. But that’s all a lie. We are soon to face other moments, ones riddled with pain and doubt and discomfort and ineluctable sorrow.


We are guaranteed nothing by anything and there is no god. Some of us are “blessed” (why have I come to hate that word so much?) with the incredible gift of sobriety or a daily reprieve from the ravages of alcohol and drugs. So fucking what. We get to be “normal.” Like that’s so great. Oh joyous me, experiencing life on life’s terms. Well you know what? I don’t like life’s terms. They suck. The mind crippling idiocy of daily life drains us of the vigor and energy that we borrow on until we’re too old to function, let alone care.


I was a child once decades ago. Playing in backyard, climbing trees, catching and throwing balls, reading comics and eating candy. A stupid happy child with torn pants and a dirty shirt and tousled hair. Living in moment after moment not knowing a goddamned thing and not caring a whit. But even at that I knew this was a raw deal. I’d seen enough of my mother’s crazy to realize that we were being fed a load of garbage. There was no justice, there was no comfort. There was no answer.

When I was nine years old the president was killed. See, right there I knew you couldn’t trust the country. I knew politics was a sham and we’d been set up. And when this great land of ours sent young men to the Vietnam to get their dicks blown off because some idiot thought that dominoes had some sort of relevance to foreign affairs, well that proved what a con the USA was.

The history was a big fucking lie too. How the hell did Colombus discover America if there were people already there? Even as a pipsqueak I saw the man behind the curtain. You trying to tell us that non white non christians don’t count as people? Well nobody said it but that’s a pretty fucking clear implication. The government goddamned well stole land from the native tribes. As an idiot kid I could see that. And slavery? Really? Land of the free, everyone equal and you’ve got people in chains being bought and sold and whipped and raped. I didn’t know the word yet but I could suss it out — hypocrites. It took a goddamned four year war to put an end to slavery. Not that it was much of an end what with 100 years of that asshole Jim Crow ruling the roost in the south. I was dumb enough to think that Jim Crow was a real guy but plenty smart enough to see that America’s black people got royally screwed and the screwing was by no means over. I watched the news. I saw blacks in the south getting clubbed and having fire hoses blasting them all to hell. I read about Civil Rights workers getting killed by crackers. I got it.

I had hope for awhile in my early teens. We could change things. The Beatles were proving that everything could be cool and fun and meaningful and we could dance and make progress. Then King was shot then RFK was shot and fuck it. There was no hope. Two months that dashed the dream. So you’re inspired. You see political leaders who can make a change, improve life for everyone. Make the country what it should be. Well, boy we’re just going to have to shoot those fuckers so you understand what’s what. Then came the Democratic convention in Chicago and the victory of Daly’s bullying political machine and the beating of protesters and the seeming end to reason.

A few months later Nixon was elected president and all doubt was removed. The worst of the worst was the most powerful man in the country if not the world (just as bad would be coming in later years). What the hell was going on to our cultural and political revolution when the ultimate square gets elected president? Made no sense.

Six months after that I started getting high. I started smoking. I was ready to be hooked. My own dear ma had emotionally abused me and had added alcoholism to her insanity and the country I lived in was an evil bastard and I was on my own as far as that goes.

I went to demonstrations. I ran from cops and tear gas and national guard troops then I saw a helicopter overhead spraying tear gas. This was being done in the name of the police. State. My own government was attacking me from the skies. Screw those bastards.

And Nixon initiated secret bombings in Cambodia because America can do what it wants to who it wants where and when it wants to and if you’ve got a problem with it well then fuck you, buddy.

By the time I went off to college and really started drinking I had no sense that there was any justice in the world. Watergate had to be the least surprising thing that ever came along except for the fact that it was outed for the whole world to see. And ya know maybe this'll lead to some changes. Government corruption will become a thing of the past and reporters will be our heroes. Yeah right. The 1980s were ushered in by the election of that totally evil bastard Reagan who’d already done his utmost to destroy California in his two terms as governor. Now he was going to have eight years to screw up the entire fucking country. Another backslide for the country. More proof that in the US chickens are forever coming home to roost.

Fast forward to today and there have been gains and victories and achievements and my life has not been at all bad. But there is also a large bloc of blockheads in this country who want everyone to have guns, who don’t give a shit about poor people but want to protect the rich, who think that global warming is a hoax because maybe they think that scientists are congenital liars. These are the same ass bites who are homophobic, misogynistic, racist, xenophobes. A disturbingly large chunk of this society are no different than the melon heads who whipped slaves or joined the klan or participated in lynchings.


But what. I don’t know. You plug ahead and make the most of whatever you’ve got and wish there was a god so that someone could smite some of these dumb motherfuckers. You wonder at the pain of it all. You can’t cry because you’d never stop. You look for some light and hang on to whatever joy you can because part of you is still in that backyard playing with toys and looking forward to watching Huckleberry Hound. Why not.

23 July 2015

A Killer Ballet Recital Where People Were Getting Massacred by an Evil Six Year Old Girl With Plans for World Domination

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - - Hunter S. Thompson

Three fucking hours are gone. Wasted. Idled away. Spent doing nothing on the stupid internet and looking at nothing on the stupid TV. Nowhere. Nada. Zilch.

This happens. And I hate it. I’ve no patience for wasted time. Used to be it didn’t bother me. I guess because I felt like I had so much of it. Time that is. Now I see it running out. Oh I’ve got a ways to go yet but the writing is right there on the wall. Calendars don’t lie. Clocks speak the truth. The majority of my time on this planet has passed. And that’s not even taking into account that I could be among the next victims of a mass shooter or get in the way of a drunk driver swerving into a crosswalk or be in a subway train that explodes or be stricken with inoperable brain cancer or be zapped by an angry alien spacecraft. Accidents do happen and people do take fatally ill. Look it up.

So I try to make the most of my time. Writing is one way. Reading. Working. Studying Italian. Watching a good movie. Running. Engaging in meaningful social interaction. Although that latter is fraught with risks. You could find yourself talking to a fricking idiot and then whattaya gonna do? How many times do you seem to be enjoying a nice chat with someone when they up and say something stupid?  So incredibly stupid that it’s impossible to ignore or let slide and so incredibly stupid that you realize trying to correct them would be like trying to talk an angry dog out of barking. It bloody well ruins a conversation for me when someone says something totally asinine, especially when its empirically wrong.

Here’s some samples a few of which I might have already made mention of on this blog:

“There wouldn’t be any crime in Oakland if it weren’t for the police.”
“Maybe Donald Trump can do for the country what he’s done for his businesses.”
“I don’t like the Beatles.”
“When my students are late I make them write sentences.”
“Ernest Hemingway was a hack.”
“I watch golf on TV.”
“Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union.”
“Sex should only be between a man and a woman.”
“What’s the point of a three day weekend? it’s only one day longer than a regular weekend.”
That last one was said by an adult human being. Seriously.

Then there’s people who give opinions on topics they know nothing about. They often preface it with “Well, I don’t not a lot about_________but I think…” It’s akin to the idiot conservatives who are forever disagreeing with the science on matters such as evolution and climate change and start off by saying: “I’m no scientist but….” You are not required to have an opinion on every topic under the sun and if it is well out of your area of expertise and you've decided to fashion an opinion anyway, do us a favor and keep it to yourself. People do this about sports all the time. They know next to nothing about a sport (and certainly never played it) but can't be stopped from bloviating about why the Capital City Turnips lost last night.

But I go back for more. Conversations I mean. Even with the same people who've said something that would embarrass the intellect of a five year old. If I stopped talking to everyone who ever said something stupid to me I wouldn’t have any conversations at all. Hell, I couldn’t even talk to myself and I love doing that. I not only talk to myself all the time (I rarely give myself compliments which has had the effect of making me somewhat self conscious around me. I mean, what do I have to do to earn a little praise, a little recognition from myself?) I also say excuse me to me when I burp. I guess it's to me. Who else could I be directing an excuse me to when I’m home alone? It used to be that I was saying it to the cat but we don’t have a cat anymore so it must be that I’m being polite to yours truly. Oh how sweet.

Here’s something I realized that is clearly evident to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes perusing my blog (god love you). I come off as a cranky old man. That’s odd because in truth I’m really really irritable and complain constantly about virtually everything. Anyway its more fun to turn writing into bitch sessions than it is to write about rainbows and ponies and tea parties with pastries and pink chiffon dresses and children's ballet recitals.* Actually it could be fun to write about a ballet recital if it was a killer ballet recital where people were getting massacred by an evil six year old girl with plans for world domination. Or how about a Swedish ballet recital in 1963 with depressed parents trying to watch but being pre-occupied by the cold war and their extra marital affairs and god’s silence and the ballet instructor’s suicide? Now that would be interesting. Ingmar, I'm looking at you on this one, buddy.

Point being I write a lot about misery. These days I’m feeling anything but. I’m so god damned cheerful these days it would make you sick to hear about it. The job is fantastic, my health is great and I’m in a happy marriage with the woman of my dreams. Of course all this bliss tends to make me nervous. It can never last. Another serious bout of depression is bound to be lurking around the corner or radical unpleasant changes are forthcoming at work or my appendix is about to burst or the wife is about to wise up and realize that I’m a no account bum. There are also the scenarios mentioned earlier in this post in which I meet an untimely demise. If it happens that I keep not dying everyday I’ll eventually be the world’s oldest living person. That’s the kiss of death. No one keeps that position for very long. They all eventually kick the bucket and some new asshole comes along and is stuck with the title.

Longevity would be really cool but I’m more interested in staying healthy for as long as possible. So far so good.

(This would be a rotten post to put up if I believed in jinxes. I mean I’d be due for some tragedy for sure if I thought you could really tempt fate that way. Actually I’m going to go ahead and tempt fate and I’m going to do it right here and right now: come here fate, I’ve got some delicious cookies for you, plus you can stretch out on a nice comfy sofa and I’ll put on the TV for you. Whattaya say? Tempted?) Let's say if fate is tempted. Actually I hope not, no cookies.

Well this has all been sufficiently weird but that’s who I am and what I am. By a lot of standards I’m one weird dude but there’s worse things to be. Like someone who watches golf on TV. Fuck that.

*Speaking of ballet...oldest daughter did a turn in ballet when she was about five or six. To that point all the teachers and day care workers and what not she'd been surrounded by were pussycats who believed in praise and kind words and all that goody two shoe shit. But the director of the ballet school was a matronly looking woman of about 70 who was a latter day Herman Goering. I loved her. She was strict as hell with the kiddies and got results. She wasn't just old school she was medieval school. Memories.

22 July 2015

Arthur Grunion, The Man Who Woke Up in Trees

Arthur Grunion fell out of a tree. I know that sounds like the beginning of a children’s book but it happens to be a statement of fact. Arthur landed on grass and the fall was only about six feet so he was not badly hurt at all. Aside from a slightly bruised hip and a severely bruised ego. The bigger issue, however, was that Arthur Grunion had no recollection of how he got up on that tree in the first place. He was not drunk nor in any other way high, so he couldn’t reckon what he’d been doing in a tree. When Arthur was a child... well that was different, he was always climbing trees. It seemed half his childhood was spent up in trees. It was a wonderful escape, really. Arthur would climb the walnut tree in his backyard or the oak tree in the park and be away from everything and everyone. He’d be far removed from school, bullies, bickering parents and all the world’s troubles. From a young age Arthur would watch the news on the TV — while his schoolmates were laughing at silly cartoons — and he would try to grasp all the horrors going on in the world. Arthur didn't know why he watched the news, he was just drawn to, there was something compelling about world events, maybe especially the tragic ones. The news distressed Arthur but he watched nonetheless. Of course up in a tree there was no need to worry about anything, least of all events in far away places. So Arthur would climb up as high as was safe and just sit looking up at the sky or down at the ground so far below. He never knew fear up in the trees, just contentment.

But Arthur Grunion was 34 years old now and hadn’t climbed a tree in nearly two decades. At least not that he could remember. As he lay on the grass beside the tree in front of his house Arthur wondered how the devil he’d wound up in the tree. He remembered starting his walk home from the subway station. It was too warm a day for Arthur’s tastes and he’d removed his jacket and slung it over a shoulder. It was Wednesday so Arthur was looking forward to his favorite program on TV which he’d enjoy after dinner with his wife, Kate. She didn’t care for the show so would retire to their bedroom with a book. Of course before dinner Arthur would play with little Lillian his four year old daughter and later he’d read her a bedtime story. He looked forward to seeing little Lillian. Arthur had wondered what Kate was fixing for that night’s dinner. He thought it might be spaghetti or red snapper. Arthur thought he’d be fine with either or anything else for that matter. He also thought about how his day at work had been. Pretty good. The new secretary seemed cute and nice though very young. That’s the last thing Arthur remembered before falling off the tree. He’d still been two blocks from home at the time of his last memory.

Finally Arthur stood up. Yup, his hip was a little sore. But that was it. His pants were torn and his jacket…say, where was his jacket? Arthur looked all around the tree but there was no sign of it. Then for some reason he looked up and there it was, half way up the tree. Higher than where he had fallen from. This added to Arthur’s bewilderment. He scratched his head.

Just then Kate emerged from the house. “Artie, what are you doing standing there? Come in.”

Arthur just looked at his wife. They had been married for seven years and were quite happy together. Kate had stopped working when the baby was born four years ago. She was now two months pregnant with what would be their second child. They’d only learned of the pregnancy last week.

“What’s wrong, Artie?” Kate asked. She could tell something was the matter. Nothing got by Kate.

Arthur just decided to come out with it. “I fell from the tree.”

“What on earth were you doing up in the tree? And with your nice clothes on too.”

“I don’t know.” Arthur confessed and scratched his head again.

“What do you mean you don’t know? You just climbed up there on a whim?”

“No, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t remember climbing the tree. I was walking home, I remember being two blocks from here and all of a sudden I feel from the tree but I don’t recall getting up in the tree.”

“You’re serious aren’t you?” Kate was concerned.

“I”m afraid so,” Arthur admitted.

“Well come on in and sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea and we’ll see if we can figure out what’s what. Lillian’s over playing with Marjorie and will be home soon.”  Marjorie was also four years old and lived just three houses down from the Grunions.

“But my jacket…” Arthur said feebly and pointed up to it.

“My goodness, Artie, how did it get way up there?”

Arthur admitted he didn’t know but said he ought to go climb up and get it. Kate insisted that he change his clothes first.

A half hour later Arthur was sitting in his favorite chair sipping tea. He’d successfully retrieved his jacket after changing his clothes. For the first time in his life he was depressed and confused and frightened all at once. Kate had insisted he call the doctor but the offices were closed for the day. Kate didn’t know what to think. She hovered around Arthur while getting dinner ready. Then Lillian came home. Marjorie’s mother Debra, who was from France, brought her to the front door.

As usual, Lillian was very excited to see her daddy. For his part Arthur was especially glad to see his daughter. He needed a distraction from worrying and wondering about the whole business of the tree. Lillian supplied that in spades.

Arthur passed a pleasant enough evening but he couldn't help but be distracted by the whole tree incident. Did he black out? Was this a sign of mental problems? Did he have some sort of mini stroke? Even Arthur's favorite program was ruined by these questions. For her part Kate was worried sick, though she'd never let on to Arthur. Instead of repairing to her room when her husband's show came on she sat near Arthur and kept an eye on him. He seemed fine, though she could tell he was worried too.

Everything seemed fine the next morning. Arthur was pleased to have slept like a baby. He got to his office around the time his doctor opened shop so he called straight away. They couldn't see him until the late afternoon which was fine by Arthur. He'd have time to get some work done and could just go home from the appointment. He was in solid with his boss and had no trouble getting away.

Doctor Nix couldn't find a thing wrong with Arthur so suggested two possibilities: a brain scan or a visit to a psychiatrist. The doctor even suggested that Arthur might want to try both. Arthur was fine with the idea of a brain scan but couldn't countenance the notion of seeing a shrink. It was fine for other people, but Arthur couldn't imagine blabbing on and on to some stranger. They set up an appointment for the brain scan the following week and Arthur promised to think about "seeing someone" if there was a reoccurrence and the brain scan didn't reveal any abnormalities.

From the doctor's, Arthur was able to walk home. It was only about a 20 minutes on foot. He was wary the whole way home. After all it had been while walking home the day before that he'd wound up in the tree. But nothing happened and Arthur was relived. So was Kate who was also glad that her husband was going to have the scan. She was sure it would reveal nothing and that the tree incident would prove to be a one time event that would remain forever a mystery.

Everything was, as Arthur liked to say, hunky dory, for the next week and he almost canceled the brain scan but Kate reminded him that it was always better to be safe than sorry. It was a week after that Dr. Nix called and said that they saw absolutely no abnormalities and not to worry but to call right away if anything similar happened again. Arthur felt totally confident that everything was fine and he could go back to focusing on work, Lillian and Kate's pregnancy.

It was three weeks after that and about a month since the tree incident that Arthur was walking home from the subway station without a care in the world. Sure it was raining, but he had a nice new sturdy umbrella and anyway the area could stand some rain after a hot Summer. Arthur had just passed by an old neighbor by the name of Luke something and was within sight of home when suddenly he was up in a tree. One that was several blocks in the another direction.

Arthur screamed.

He was well up in the tree and getting a good soaking from the rain. He looked down and saw his umbrella propped up against a rock under the tree. Arthur hung onto the big branch he was cradling as if for dear life. He'd never known such fear. It was worse -- far worse -- to suddenly be in a tree than it was to suddenly fall from one. At least for Arthur it was. He began to weep. He banged the branch with a fist. It was frustration and fear. This was the second time and he wasn't right in front of the house. It took a few minutes but Arthur Grunion finally shimmed down the tree. He picked up his umbrella and sprinted home.

Kate and Lillian were in the kitchen as Arthur bolted into the house. Kate saw the look of abject terror on his face though she had no idea why it was there. "What happened, Artie?" she asked with alarm. Lillian ran over to her father. "Daddy! You're soaked!" She nonetheless wrapped her arms around him.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," he assured them both, but only Lillian was convinced.

"Lillian honey you go to your room and get the drawing you made while I help Daddy get out of his wet clothes," Kate said. She did want to get Arthur out of those wet clothes but she also wanted to know what was wrong.

In the bathroom, as he disrobed, Arthur told her what happened. Kate was scared. Much much more scared than she'd ever been the first time. This sounded so much worse. For one thing it was the second time, then there was the fact that he ended up several blocks from home. But most of all she could sense the real fear that Arthur was experiencing.

"I guess maybe I'll have to call Dr. Nix in the morning. He'll probably say I have to go to a shrink."

"Well that's exactly what you should do then. Also you should stay home tomorrow. Call in sick. They can spare you for one day. Or more if necessary."

Arthur was in complete agreement with his wife.

The following week Arthur Grunion was, for the first time in his life, in a psychiatrist's office. All the trepidation he might have felt about the experience was cancelled out by the fear that he was losing his mind and his determination not to let it happen. He had a pregnant wife and a four year old. They needed him. Arthur talked about his childhood and the trouble he'd had getting along with other people and how distant his parents were and how they always fought and all the time he spent in trees. The psychiatrist, a Dr. Norden, nodded and frowned. His eyebrows seemed locked in the furrowed position. You would have thought by looking at Dr. Norden that he was listening to the gruesome details of a horrific car accident. But he said nothing aside from a few questions, all of which were designed to get Arthur to talk more. The hour flew by, in large part due to the fact that it only lasted 50 minutes in real time.

"What do you think, doctor?" Arthur asked hopefully. "Do you think I've got some sort of deep seeded problem I'm working out?"

"We'll have to see," said the doctor as he ushered Arthur toward the door. "We'll be able to explore more next time."

"So should I take any medications?" Arthur asked, desperate for the doctor to tell him more.

"That might prove necessary later, but right now we can't be sure what's causing these...uh, episodes."

Arthur liked the use of the term "episode" it sounded much less dangerous.

"Is there anything preventive I can do? What should I do if it happens again?"

"I should think you might want to walk home with someone since both episodes have happened while you've been walking home. If it does happen before our next visit, call me and leave a message. I'll get back to you that same evening."

"Thank you, doctor," Arthur said trying to disguise his disappointment. Arthur hadn't expected a quick fix but absent that he'd hoped for some clue, or some sign of hope. As it was he feared that this would be a long process and another "episode" was quite possible.

Arthur arranged to have Kate and Lillian meet him at the subway station each night and walk home with him. It felt silly to Arthur but at the same time it provided assurance that he wasn't going to wind up in a tree.

The next weekend Arthur drove to the supermarket. Kate usually did the shopping but she was taking Lillian to a cousin's birthday party in another town and the three of them had plans to visit Kate's mother the next day so Arthur volunteered to pick up enough groceries for the rest of the weekend.

Arthur was delighted to find a parking spot right near the entrance. The supermarket's parking lot was typically crowded on Saturday's around noon. He got out of the car and the next thing he knew was in a tree across the street from the store. Arthur wanted to cry. He wanted to cry long and loud. A few people were staring up at him, a few were pointing. Arthur thought of something. He'd noticed that it was exactly noon when he pulled into the parking space. He looked at his watch now and it was 12:18. He'd lost about 17 minutes, subtracting the time he took to get out of the car.

There was nothing for him to do but get out of the tree. Shakily but carefully Arthur climbed down. As he neared the ground the people who'd been staring went on their way. One wiseacre kid, however, clapped when Arthur touched ground. Suddenly feeling panic stricken, Arthur sprinted back to his car and drove straight home. He dashed the few feet from the car to the house. His heart was palpitating.

The rest of the day was difficult for Arthur, especially with Kate and Lillian away until dark. He called Dr. Norden and left a message. He wished there was someone else to call, someone he could confide in, but Arthur boasted no close friends, he never had. Kate was only the third woman he had ever dated. There were countless people that Arthur had encountered in his life, at school, at work, in the neighborhood, who he was on good terms with. Heck, no one ever disliked Arthur. But the only people Arthur was at all close to were Kate and Lillian.

Dr. Norden called back at around 3:00. They talked about what happened for a bit. To Arthur the doctor sounded concerned but dispassionate. He supposed that's the way it is with a good psychiatrist. The doctor recommended that Arthur not go out alone for awhile, at least until after his next visit. He also phoned in a prescription to Arthur's pharmacy for valium. Arthur dared not pick it up himself. He'd have to send Kate there when she got home.

Arthur, Kate and Lillian passed a pleasant evening, mostly in front of the TV. Arthur was still in the habit of watching the evening news and fretting about it, but on this day he gave it a miss in deference to a children's show that Lillian liked. The valium calmed Arthur considerably and left him feeling a little high. Arthur had never been a drinker, having gotten drunk just once. That was during his sophomore year in college. He hadn't cared for the experience and rarely imbibed since. But the valium left him feeling "buzzed" as Arthur imagined one would feel after a couple of glasses of wine. He felt like nothing could go wrong. No, he was in the bosom of his family, safe in his house. Lillian fell asleep earlier after the day's excitement at the birthday party so Arthur and Kate watched a movie on TV.  It wasn't very good but it was cozy to sit together on the sofa with just the flickering light of the TV screen and the nightlight from Lillian's room.

At a little after 11:00 Arthur brushed his teeth and joined Kate in bed. Perhaps because of the valium he fell asleep with a minimum of tossing and turning. He was sleeping soundly, dreaming of playing with an old family dog on a farm when he woke up with a start -- and found himself high up in the backyard tree. There he was wearing only his pajamas in the cold Autumn night, shivering from fear and cold. He couldn't believe it. Of course he hadn't believed it the previous three times he'd ended up in a tree but this was worse, so very much worse. For crying out loud he'd been asleep in bed. There was no safety!

Slowly and carefully Arthur climbed down but the tree was slick with dew and from the recent rain and a few feet above the ground Arthur Grunion fell awkwardly to the ground. He hit the lawn with a thump and howled in pain. Arthur had hurt his ankle. He limped back into the house. When he opened the bedroom door Kate woke up.

"What's the matter, Artie? Can't sleep?"

It broke his heart to have to tell her. Kate had such faith in Arthur and so much love. Their marriage wasn't perfect but it was as close as a couple could expect to get. They'd gone through a rough patch shortly after Lillian was born, mostly because of monetary concerns, but it had never been anything serious and they rarely quarreled anymore and then only briefly and always followed by quick reconciliations. Kate thought Arthur was a wonderful husband and a terrific father to Lillian.

Between the pain of the injured ankle and the fear and depression brought on by the latest "episode" Arthur hardly slept a wink the rest of the night. Lillian too was barely able to doze. The next morning Arthur called Dr. Norden again, he prescribed a strong sleeping pill and advised Arthur not to be alone. He also moved up their appointment to first thing Monday morning.

Arthur and Kate made it through their visit with Kate's mom. It was painfully dull for Arthur to sit through these visits. Kate's mother was a depressive even before she was widowed two years prior. She perked up the littlest bit when Lillian visited. Arthur was not exactly in a buoyant mood either. That night he just stared at the television set. Only playing with Lilian gave him any pleasure. Exhausted, Arthur retired early.

The sleeping pill worked, Arthur slept like a baby. The next morning Kate dropped him off at Dr. Norden's office. She'd be by to pick him up in an hour.

Dr. Norden sat in his office waiting for Arthur Grunion. He always left his 8:00 am slot open for emergencies. Usually, of course, there wasn't one and he had the time to catch up on paper work. This particular day he had no paper work to do so was reading a book about the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Dr. Norden glanced at his watch and noted that it was 8:05. He'd only seen this Grunion fellow once but he didn't strike the doctor as the type of person who would be late. Dr. Norden shuffled uneasily in his big leather chair. He couldn't abide tardiness. A couple of minutes later he glanced out the window and was amazed to see Arthur Grunion climbing the redwood tree across the street.

Arthur would remember getting out of the car and waving goodbye to Kate. He hadn't thought that just walking a few yards to the doctor's office would present a problem.

Dr. Norden ran out of his office. He hadn't run in many years so it was not easy, but he felt a sense of urgency. Not to mention excitement. Here he was about to observe and try to help a patient during what was in all likelihood a psychotic episode of some sort.

It was a very tall tree. The top was certainly higher than a nearby four story building and Arthur was making his way towards the top. Dr. Norden worried that the shock of coming out of his spell might cause the patient to lose his grip -- both literally and figuratively. As the doctor neared the tree he had the twin realizations that the closer he got to the tree the harder it would be to see Grunion and that calling his name and perhaps snapping him out of it might be the worst thing he could do. Dr. Norden spun around and returned to his office to call 9-1-1.

Arthur was nearing the top of the tree where the branches were smaller and frailer. A few people were watching now and they feared that a fall was imminent. Suddenly Arthur stopped. A few seconds passed with Arthur -- just a few feet from the top of the tree --gazing off into the distance.

It was like waking from a bad dream but the dream is real. Unlike the previous occasions, Arthur gradually came out of whatever spell he was under. It slowly dawned on him that he hadn't made it from the car to the office. He was dangerously far up a redwood tree. Arthur thought for sure he had gone mad. What use was he to Kate and Lillian if he was in an insane asylum? Arthur was more afraid of being crazy than he was of falling from the tree.

There's nothing for me to do but to get down, Arthur Grunion thought. He'd find Dr. Norden and beg to be committed until he was cured.  Slowly and carefully Arthur made his way towards the ground. He tried desperately not to look down, to just look at the next branch below. He had made it about 20 feet down when the sound of emergency vehicles filled the air. Arthur had no idea they were for him. Arthur sobbed as he continued his descent. He thought: is this a metaphorical descent into madness? Then there was nothing. No sight. No sound. No feeling. Just a vague consciousness. Arthur's mind grasped for what had happened. Then one of his hands grasped too. At air.

Now he was fully awake and could see and hear and smell and taste and understand. Now Arthur was in the walnut tree in the backyard of his childhood home. Arthur Grunion realized that he should be quite frightened indeed about suddenly being in another tree on the other part of town, 25 years ago, but he felt nothing like that at all. It was pure and unadulterated contentment. He was a kid again and he was in his tree and he was safe. At last.

20 July 2015

The Author Details Another Bus Ride Although there is a Digression Related to Teaching

The old Chinese man sitting next to me on the bus was picking his nose. Across from me an au pair was struggling with a toddler in a stroller. I thought that Toddler in a Stroller sounded like a really weird heavy metal song. The bus came to sudden stop causing two tourists to skid a few feet. The woman said: “it’s just like water skiing only different.” Right on the money, I thought. I happened to glance toward the back of the bus, saw a tall lovely young woman of about 18 trying to look disaffected. She was doing a damn good job. I wondered why she wasn’t staring at her cell phone like everyone else her age does when confronted with an empty moment.

The bus driver barked at passengers to move back to allow room for the flood of people who were struggling to get on. Many of these people were old and only boarded with great difficulty. Still others were very young and were in a desperate hurry to get on because it was the next thing in their life and they wanted to hurry up and experience it so they could move on to whatever was after that. No one young seems to want to wait anymore. As people got on it was evident that there was plenty of room on the bus. The driver had been evidently unaware that passengers had gotten off the bus too, at the back door. Maybe he forgot that people get off as well as on the bus. Maybe he forget he had a rear view mirror. Maybe he was just surly. The last one for sure.

I had just started a book that I was quite enjoying but somehow today’s activity on the bus was particularly distracting. Sometimes it's like that. You can be engrossed in a book on a bus ride and not notice a knife fight taking place right next to you. Other times you can be fascinated by a little kid’s lunch box and the way an old lady fusses with her purse. Who knows why.

The bus zipped along. Evidently the driver was behind schedule or was desperate to get to a stop where he could dash off the bus for a few minutes and relieve himself somewhere. Every so often a bus driver will get off and disappear into a store or cafe then re-emerge minutes later. I guess they go pee. Maybe some of them shoot up. I’d sure be tempted to shoot junk if I had to drive a bus in a big city. Making it through a typical day…forget about it. Nerves of steel and a long, long fuse. I’m surprised none of 'em ever pull out a .44 and start settling scores with bitchy passengers. 

When I taught middle school it always seemed like a good idea that none of my colleagues were packing heat. Or me for that matter. I’m telling ya, some of the students — 12 -14 years old, mind you — are a caution. Attitude like you wouldn’t believe. I had more than one who were crack babies. One of them literally could not keep his trap shut. I would calm him down and get him focused and turn around and he’d be yapping again, likely as not something rude or inappropriate or loud or disturbing or any combination thereof. I asked the principal what we could do for the kid and he said to just keep documenting his misdeeds until there were enough suspension days that we could move for expulsion on the little bastard. That way he’d be someone else’s problem. Great. But I didn’t blame the principal. There were no resources. Our school district wasn’t exactly in the Ozarks (Berkeley, CA) yet there was next to nothing to be done for kids like this one. When I say next to nothing I mean sitting right beside it. Practically on its lap. Eventually kids like him become society's problem. Often stewing in prison. What a got a great system. Shuffle 'em along, like the homeless. Make 'em someone else's problem.

The whole expulsion process was a joke. It just meant shifting some miscreant to another school district. We got our share. Usually from Oakland. You’d get a new kid late in the school year and pretty much knew the score. He’d come walking into class late on his first day, with no backpack and an attitude the size of Missouri. You know not to judge the book by its cover but you also knew that this was bad news. Why pretend? You can put on the happy face and welcome the little bugger but could bank on trouble within the week. Sometimes less. So it went.

But I started off with the old Chinese man picking his nose. He was like a lot of geezers on the bus who seem perfectly content to just sit there. No book, no paper, no cell phone, no chatting, no absorbing the sights and sounds of the passing city. Just being. Maybe kind of zen. Maybe lost in thought. Maybe wondering where all the damn years went. A lot of people get old and start wondering what the hell happened. Like it was a big surprise that they got older. Who’d have figured? Then they start looking back and mostly see all the mistakes and what-ifs and roads not taken. You can make yourself pretty fucking miserable doing that. On the other hand the proverbial “they” say that nostalgia is good for you. I indulge quite a bit myself.

So the bus got to my stop, as it inevitably does and I damn near threw myself off. I’m always goddamned ready to get off a bus when the time comes. It’s not an experience you generally want to prolong.

17 July 2015

Sometimes You Eat the Bear and Sometimes it Eats You -- My Fountain of Sorrow

Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
You've known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight
You've had to struggle, you've had to fight
To keep understanding and compassion in sight
You could be laughing at me, you've got the right
But you go on smiling so clear and so bright
- From Fountain of Sorrow by Jackson Browne

Here is something I wrote a few weeks ago. As will become quickly obvious, I was in a blue mood at the time. Or black. Or black and blue. Upon finishing it I quite suddenly felt better. Much better. I have continued to feel fine and dandy ever since. It is as if I needed to purge myself of some awful, fetid emotional bile that was percolating in my soul. Remarkable really. Anyway reading it over I am amazed that I could have ever felt so miserable. It suddenly seems so distant. It feels no more relevant to me now than watching the Flintstones. An important thing is to make something of our misery. At least a lesson for ourselves, if not others.

There is a churning in the pit of the stomach. An overwhelming unease. The mind grasps for some reason to smile — to no avail. The psychic pain can be felt radiating throughout the body. The hands tingle within uncomfortably. Bowels constrict. Sweat beads form. Nausea beckons. No amount of water will keep the throat from feeling dry. Nerves seem so frayed that it is if they are permanently useless. Happy times seem like memories from a distant past, an impossibly long ago time.

The future is a jumbled mess of twisted pain not to be considered. It will doubtless be as bleak as today. There is no hope. Destiny is loneliness and empty death and a life wasted. It all seems pointless, the tension and the sorrow consume all. Any kind of sound merely taunts. In fact any kind of sensation, even a cool breeze, is an angry tease. Odors are different but each has the same negligent effect. The mouth tastes like defeat. Bland loss and despair.


The day stretches out ahead hopelessly long and unmanageable but also frighteningly short, like life. The paradox sears the brain. Nothingness. The void. Emptiness. All is fraud. All is agonizing death. There is no home there is only hell and it is right here and right now and always will be.

So it is. All this can be interrupted by horrifying panic and wild screeching anxiety. At any moment the omnipresent ennui could yield to greater suffering.

More pills please. What else is there? Exercise, meditation, sleep, human contact, sharing, laughing, music….Don’t work. They don’t change anything, not for very long. Even love cannot conquer all. The body sags with the weight of the suffering and the eyes can do no more than look blankly at objects that do no register. The mind is too preoccupied with killing itself.

More pills indeed. Is that all there is? Consider that they do little more than numb. They alter nothing. They blunt that sharpness of the pain and make it possible to get up and walk and talk and do. To do. To be. To have. To live. Of this world, a miracle of creation condemned to be for short time before plunging into blackness.

My life is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows
That's how this refrain goes, so come on join in everybody
Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, everything that's wonderful
Is sure to come your way, when you're in love to stay
Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, everything that's wonderful
-- From Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows by Lesley Gore

How awfully hard I’ve tried, at times, to destroy it all and render everything moot. Basking in self pity and self recrimination and self possession. Borne of the tragedy of my being. The silence now deafens. It is an angry retribution for my sins. It is so quiet now that I must be utterly insane. The quiet pounds against my head. I feel the angry scowl curl on my lips. That disgusted look that says how contemptible everything is to me and I to it. Life and I have broken our agreement to leave one another alone. We trample upon each other savagely. Ripping ourselves apart with me the sure loser.

I have no recourse.

The failures. The losses. The defeats. The dismissals. The denials. The rejections. The leaking soul and tired mind. Could I just walk into the ocean? Keep walking against the churning waves, the salt flying about me. Cold and soaked and straining against the surf, pushing ever forward until consumed by it all swallowing great gallons of water until death’s grip. No I could not. Something possesses me to go on regardless. Something wills to live and try and grapple and take what is coming to me. To die when life decides, meanwhile refusing to yield.

It all seems impossible yet altogether necessary. It must be done and damn the odds. Damn the consequences and all the added suffering I will have to bear. I was born of pain and live in it. It courses through me with my blood. Dispensing discomfort and anxiety and horror and depression and wearying my poor battered soul.

My day is crystallized in this, in these words and this message to myself and this attempt to make sense of more psychological torment. Here is where I am and this is who I am and why I am and what I am. The person sitting here writing and….


To who knows what.

Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling do not cry
And I will sing a lullabye

Golden slumbers fill your eyes
Smiles awake you when you rise
Sleep pretty darling do not cry
And I will sing a lullabye
-- From Golden Slumbers by Paul McCartney

15 July 2015

The Green Man on the Bus

There was a green man on the bus. Tall, lanky and wearing a Robin Hood type hat with a flower coming out if it. He had an old fashioned rucksack that appeared to have several hardcover books in it. When people looked at the green man he just grinned. Some of us couldn’t help staring because, after all, he was green. People are not supposed to be green anymore than they are supposed to be able to fly or have a third eye.

I know what you’re thinking, this fella was wearing make up. Well sir, if he was it was the best damn make up job I’ve ever seen. You see this sort of thing in movies where with trick photography and what not your eyes can easily be deceived.

There was a contentment about this man as if he was perfectly at ease with the world and his place in it. He gave off the impression of total self confidence without a hint of arrogance. Almost like he was a religious person who was sure of all the answers. That's no mean feat when you're wearing an altogether silly looking hat with a feather sticking out of it. And when you're green to boot. I wanted to say something to the green man but for the life of couldn't think what. I'm not averse to talking to strangers but usually do only if there's a pressing need to, not because they are green.

An old man got on the bus with what must have been his grandson. Maybe even his great grandson. The old fella looked 85 if he was day. The little tyke looked no more than five. I think they were Chinese although I can’t be sure. The bus was nearing Chinatown so it stands to reason. Anyway the youngster couldn’t keep his eyes off the green man. The old fella said something to him sharply in what was probably Chinese and was probably along the lines of, “stop staring, it’s rude.” So the child looks straight ahead, straining against his better instincts to do so. He also makes his whole body erect and proper and there was no question but that it was uncomfortable for him to do so.

But you know how kids are, he could only keep it up so long. Finally he breaks from his straight ahead stare and looks up at the green man. Not only can he not not look, he can’t not say something. It comes out like this: “why are you green, people aren’t supposed to be green.” The old man immediately admonishes the child with angry words and a stern face, but the child's question is out there just the same.

The green man smiles real big and looks down at the kid. He says, “well son, people can be whatever they want so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Sometimes we can’t control what we are and we learn to live with it and maybe even embrace it.” Everyone on the bus is staring at him, many with their mouth wide open as if in shock. Its one thing to see a green man, its altogether another to hear him speak.

Just then when the green fella had finished saying his piece, the bus came to stop. There were a few people who couldn’t get off of that bus fast enough. But I also noticed a couple of folks who seemed to change their mind about getting off. They were maybe thinking that the green man might have more to say and they wanted to be there to hear it. It’s not every day you see and hear a green man.

In addition to people getting off — or in some cases, like I said, staying on — the bus, a lot of people boarded. It was one of those bus stops that is a busy point of the bus line. You know the kind, owing to its location there’s always a passel of people there. Anyway the bus filled up real good and I lost my direct line of sight to the green fella. It was standing room only — this was near rush hour, ya see — and there was barely room for one more person as the bus continued on its way.

I heard the green man’s voice again but owing to other noises I couldn’t make out what he was saying. It sounded from the few words I heard that he was just having a normal chat with someone. Because I couldn’t see him and could barely hear anything he said, I focused on my book. I always take a book with me on the bus and usually have my nose in it the whole time I’m riding.

A few stops later the bus half emptied. I looked up and saw people crowding out the two exits. But I did not see the green man. He had already gotten off. Believe it or not I felt devastated. It was as though I had missed an opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime one at that. Why hadn’t I struck up a conversation with the green man? I could have at least asked him some questions. He seemed happy to talk and probably wouldn’t have hesitated to address his unique skin color.

I thought about getting off the bus and looking for him. Maybe he’d only just gotten off and hadn’t gone far. But it seemed too much to hope for. I also wondered if perhaps I’d see him again. Many people catch the same bus at the same time everyday. Perhaps the green man would be a regular. But that too seemed wishful thinking. The more I pondered the situation the more I was convinced that this was a one shot deal. I sat glumly on the bus until my stop. I was unable to read or to think of anything other than the green man and what he could have been and what he meant. Maybe he symbolized something. He was, perhaps, the embodiment of some ideal. He could have been a call to judge people for who they were and not what they looked like. It finally occurred to me that I was making too much of him. Maybe he wasn’t really green at all and it really was make up. Hell they were doing all kinds of miracles with all kinds of technology these days so how hard would it be to make a guy look green if you really wanted to?

It also seemed to me that if he really was green there would have been something about it in the papers. Somewhere on the internet there would have to be a reference to this fella. He couldn’t have just fallen out of the sky. Although, come to think of it, that was about as likely as the notion of a man with green skin color.

It took well into the night -- after dinner and a couple of TV shows -- before I was able to shake the image of the green man out of my brain and dismiss, or at least set aside, questions about what he was or what he meant.

I never did find anything about him in the papers or on the internet. It was as if I was the only person who had seen him. I rode that same bus at the same time again and never saw him. It was a mystery and I reckoned it was one that would still be there on my death bed. I never spoke of it to anyone else. What was the point? They’d think I was pulling their leg. It would raise too many questions I couldn’t answer, like why I hadn’t tried to talk to him.

It’s been three years now and I’ve not seen him nor any other green men, nor heard anyone nor read anyone who referenced him. Hell, I’m beginning to think I dreamt the whole thing.

But I didn’t. I swear it.

13 July 2015

This Starts Off Being About Office Supplies But Then I Write a Story About a Man Named Pinochle

In my line of work sometimes I have an excess of paper clips and sometimes I don’t have enough. It’s just the way it goes and I’m pretty used to it. You learn to develop a pretty thick skin about such things, if you want to succeed you do.

I use both small and larger paper clips. Sometimes I use the bigger ones when a small one would suffice, no real harm in that. On the other hand you can’t use a small paper clip when a bigger one is required. You figure these things out by trail and error.

There have been times that I’ve needed a bigger paper clip and only had small ones. That’s pretty rough. What you can't do is let it get you down. No matter what, you’ve got to forge ahead. It’s that can do attitude and never giving up that makes you successful.

Of course my job is not all paper clip shortages or paper clip surpluses. I often use a a stapler,  for instance. You’d be surprised how often you go to use a stapler and it’s out of staples. This requires finding some staples and loading them into the empty stapler. Now you’re spending more time on a job than you expected. This can lead to frustration or in extreme cases create an emergency. It’s best to plan ahead before stapling although that’s not always possible. The key is to remain cool under pressure.

As much as I have to deal with paper clips and staplers, there are other things that occupy my brain. When I’m sitting on the bus I’ll sometimes wonder if a deranged person will get on and stab me in the side of the head with an ice pick. I’d have no recourse in such a situation and would in all likelihood pass away. I’d hate that. Not the dying part so much because I know that is the at the end of every life, but going so suddenly and violently and in public. My solution is to keep an eye out for crazy people with ice picks. Haven’t spotted one yet.

There was something else I was going to write about at this point but the fact of the matter is I’ve forgotten what. I hate the frequency with which that has happened throughout my life. I’m always coming up with clever or interesting things to write about and then forgetting them. Often forever. If I write them down when I think of it then it doesn’t matter if I forget, but it’s not always possible to write them down or its such a great idea you figure there’s no way you’ll forget it.

I was thinking of writing a list of some of the great ideas I’ve forgotten but since I’ve forgotten them that’s impossible. Oh well, it was a thought.

I did find one idea that I wrote down. Here’s what it was: “a story with a main character named Mr. Pinochle.” That’s all I had. I’ve started stories with less. Here, I'll give it a shot.

Lambert J. Pinochle was too rich and respected for anyone in the little town of Allbright  to make fun of his name. Oh sure it had happened when he was a younger man and a lot when he was a boy but by the time he made his fortune early into his 30th year of life, the ribbing stopped.

Mr. Pinochle was far and away the richest man in Allbright. It was said that he could buy the whole town four or five times and still be a very rich man. His fortune started when he received a small inheritance from a grandfather. It was just enough money that, coupled with a loan from his best friend at the time Mac McCoy, he could buy the market where he was an employee. The owner, Rutherford Stallworth, was getting ready to retire and move to sunny California where his daughter and son-in-law had settled. Stallworth sold the market for much less than it was worth because he was anxious to get out of Allbright and anyway he quite liked the young Mr. Pinochle who was 21 at the time.

It wasn’t long before the ambitious Lambert Pinochle was turning a nice profit on the store. He was just naturally business savvy and was attuned to the latest business practices. Lambert soon had enough to invest in the stock market and also to buy some land that to most folks looked useless. But Lambert J. Pinochle was no fool. He had correctly reckoned that the land was soon to become quite important for the burgeoning automobile traffic that was about to start passing right by Allbright on a regular basis. A smaller version of his market and a filling station in the right spot would, and in fact did, make a lot of money.

Lambert J Pinochle
Then the young entrepreneur got lucky. Lambert bought some land just a few miles out of town with the intent of building a getaway for himself and his new wife Ethel. Soon after starting construction on the site, he found gold. Oh it wasn’t a lot, when it was all taken it out it amounted to about $5,000 worth. But our Mr. Pinochle decided to take this little windfall and put it one basket. Again he saw the future was in more and more cars and all those cars were going to require gasoline so he plunked his money into a new Oil Company and tripled his investment in one year. Then quadrupled that the next year. Lambert took a substantial chunk of everything he made from his oil company and bought land. Lots of land.

So by the time Lambert was 30 he was, as the locals would say, rolling in it. He likely had ten times as much money as any other resident of Allbright and was surely the richest man in Montana. Everyone expected that Lambert J. Pinochle would pull up stakes and move to New York or Chicago or California. But he stayed right there in Allbright. “It’s home,” he told people. Him and Ethel took regular cruises to Europe and would visit different countries there, but they always came back.

Allbright never grew too much. When Lambert was born the population was about 2,500 and when he turned 50 it was just past 3,500. I say when he turned 50 because that’s when I met him and that’s when this story begins.

I’m Charles Cherry and when I met Mr. Pinochle I was reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and had recently married Ann Peterson a native of Allbright who came to college in Berkeley, right across the bay from SF. We met at the party of a mutual friend, fell in love and within a year were married in a civil ceremony. It was the early Summer of 1940 and Ann had taken me back to Allbright to meet her folks and three younger siblings. I decided to mix a little business with pleasure and visit Lambert J. Pinochle who I’d heard tell of before I even met Ann. I thought I could get an interview with him and maybe work up a story for the Examiner. Maybe one of those feature pieces that we print in the Sunday magazine section. Anyway it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Mr. Pinochle had a mansion not far from the town center. Despite all his other business interests he still liked to keep an eye on the market where it had all started. Usually at the time of year we were there the Pinochles were off for one of their cruises but the war in Europe was in full swing so they were going to make a trip later in the year down to South America. I’d been warned that LJ (as he was sometimes called) was not too fond of the press and rarely gave interviews and then usually only to the local rag. But I’d all ready learned that in the newspaper business it never hurts to try so I paid him call at a time when he was known to regularly be at the market.

I found him behind the counter chewing the fat with a clerk. He gave me warm greeting and hearty handshake. He’d known Ann’s family his whole life and thought highly of them. Ann’s dad had the local drug store. It was no surprise that LJ refused to grant an interview, but what was a surprise was that he invited me over to his place for lunch and, as he put it, “a nice long chat about this and that.”

The Pinochle Mansion, as it was called, was a huge structure right smack dab in the middle of an ordinary residential block. To either side of it were nice quaint little houses just as there were on the rest of the block and in the entire neighborhood for that matter. Pinochle had had to buy up the adjoining two houses in order to build his mansion.

There was a butler and a few maids and a chef. There were also LJ’s dogs — he had four Irish Setters — and there was his wife Ethel and their two adopted children, both in their early teens (they’d never had any of their own). LJ gave me a tour of the place which included a large library with more books in it than a man could read in three lifetimes. There was also an office with a secretary, a teletype machine and three telephones. He also had a game room downstairs, and indoor pool and a deck on the roof with a view that seemed to go on forever.

Once we sat down to eat LJ confessed that one reason he wanted me to have lunch with him was so that he could pick my brain about San Francisco and my thoughts on the war in Europe and whether the U.S. would get involved and whether we’d also be fighting in Asia. I was able to sate his curiosity about San Fran and its environs but could add little to what he already knew about the war and any potential U.S. participation. I did express more certainty than most people did at the time that we’d get mixed up in it.

“I think you’re right and that its a damn shame. So many young men will die. Just like in the Great War. I missed that one myself. Army didn’t want me an account of a bum left leg. Fell off a tree when I was a child and broke it. Never healed quite right. Hasn’t really kept me from anything except running and joining the service.”

After a sumptuous lunch that included four courses we repaired to LJ’s living room for cigars and brandy. Ethel sat with us knitting and sipping tea. Somehow I found it odd to see a wealthy woman knitting but everyone to their own. She was a demure woman. I'd heard she kept her own counsel and was in many ways the opposite of the blustery LJ Pinochle. She just seemed like a sweet old gal to me.

After an hour of chatting about newspapers, business and sports, Mr. Pinochle excused himself. “Business to attend to, always business.” He said standing. “You and your lovely bride will have to come for dinner some evening. It was a great pleasure speaking with you young man. I’m sure you’re going to make Ann a fine husband.” We shook hands and he called a butler over to show me out. I stepped into the mid afternoon sun realizing that it had been my first time in a rich man’s house. I felt like I’d been on something of an adventure.

Ann and I left Allbright before any dinner invitations to the Pinochle mansion were received. We took the train to Chicago to see what the Windy City was like and after a weekend there returned to San Francisco.

A year and half later the United States was in the war and that included me. I enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. I saw action in Italy but was discharged with purple heart before the war ended. I’d taken some shrapnel in my left knee that pains me still on particularly cold Winter nights.

It was in January of 1946 and I was at the Examiner office getting ready to go out on a story when I happened upon a wire service story about Lambert J. Pinochle. It seemed that Ethel had caught her husband in flagrante delicto with one of the maids. There must have been a pistol handy or she came in with one because they were shot with their pants still down, literally and figuratively. Ethel Pinochle had then turned the gun on herself and shot a bullet through her temple. She seemed about the least likely person in the world to perpetuate a murder-suicide. You can never tell. Ann's folks had said that it was an open secret that LJ fooled around and it was believed that Ethel was the only one who didn't know. Maybe she had known and had had enough or maybe the shock of discovery pushed over the edge. We'll never know.

There was understandably great shock in Allbright and in Montana as a whole and in the financial circles in which LJ had dabbled. I subsequently read that his adopted children had been taken in by LJ’s spinster sister Maureen -- LJ's only surviving relative -- and they took her last name so as not to be connected with the Pinochle family scandal.

I haven’t run across nor heard of anyone with that last name since and that’s going on 25 years ago. I’m still with Examiner. Ann and I are the proud parents of three daughters. I recently returned from Vietnam where the US has gotten itself into a nasty mess that three presidents haven't been able to extricate the country from. But you’re not interested in that or me, after all this has been a story about a fella whose last name was Pinochole, just like the game.

08 July 2015

The Wife Catches Me Which I Reveal Here Along With Writing About Other Things Like Marilyn Monore


Went grocery shopping with the missus. She caught me in the act. I was checking out the women on the boxes of hair dye. Trying to pick my favorite. It was reflexive. I see pretty female faces, even on boxes and I have to look. Especially on boxes. You can’t really stare at a live person very long. She or someone else is bound to notice. But boxes, who’s going to care? Who’s going to know? My wife, that’s who.

At first I offered a weak denial. She was having none of it. After 27 years of marriage it’s impossible to slip anything by her. If I was want to lie to her about anything she’d suss me out in seconds. Having played fast and loose with the truth in the past — particularly when I was over indulging in spirits — I aim to walk the straight and narrow.

Anyway she wasn’t angry with me. I’ve done worse than look at ladies’ faces on boxes and this was but a minor sin anyway. Before I even confessed she suggested writing a blog post about the incident. And so I have.

Had there been serious recriminations for my actions it would hardly have been worth it. I mean all I was seeing were faces and while they were pretty they were conventional and not altogether interesting. I was having a deuce of a time picking a favorite.

A few months ago I was walking from the bus to subway in San Francisco and looked into a shop window where I saw a life sized photo of a quite fetching model. I continued a few feet and then saw the model herself in the flesh walking in my direction. It was surreal. Maybe she was going to check herself out.

Like many people I find it disturbing that many models — particularly of the Victoria Secret's variety — are barely more than skeletons, lovely skeletons but still. It’s not healthy for them nor for those who emulate them. Far better the swimsuit models who look closer to full blooded human beings, albeit still on the slender side. If you look at pictures of models from 30 years ago they seem positively obese in comparison with today’s stick figures.

Then there’s Marilyn Monroe. Boy is there ever. I watched The Misfits (1961) today which was her last film. I think most people, if they somehow had never heard of Ms. Monroe and saw her on film, would declare her to be of an unnatural beauty. It’s not just that she was Marilyn Monroe, she was a knockout. I mean a first round one punch unconscious on the mat knockout. Some people forget that she was a pretty good actress (if an awful pain to work with) and many people don’t know that she was quite an intelligent woman. But her life…forget about it, what a mess. It was interesting watching the film, which I hadn’t seen in decades, knowing the fates of its stars. Clark Gable died within two weeks of the film’s completion and Monroe within two years. Montgomery Clift made it only a few more years than that. Monroe supposedly said of Clift that he was the one person she’d met that was more of a mess than she was. That’s saying something. Clift and Monroe reached the heights of fame but had tragic lives. Gable, who was only 59 when he died, suffered the loss of his one true love when Carole Lombard died in a plane crash just three years into their marriage. He also hit the sauce quite a bit and chain smoked.

Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter rounded out the cast — not too shabby — and Arthur Miller wrote the screenplay and John Huston directed. A veritable who’s who. The Misfits had good intentions and is quite watchable but doesn’t live up to the great names involved in its production. I’d give it half a thumb up if such a thing were possible.

So I’ve gone into a lengthy digression and isn’t that what life is anyway. We start in one place and head towards another and if by some miracle we make it there’s at last a few detours along the way. The fun is in the journey as many a wise person has said and as many more will iterate.

I will go back for a moment to the issue of weight. I am reminded of two overweight people I saw in the gym recently. One was on an elliptical machine going at a pace that barely qualified as forward motion. He was glued to a The Big Bang Theory (so sad that we need TV screens on aerobic machines). I noticed during one commercial he was texting. The other overweight person was on a treadmill running and panting and huffing and puffing and sweating. The TV screen was off and this dude was working. Any bets on which one is still overweight in 12 months? I see a lot of people come to the gym and barely break a sweat and others who stay bone dry. For them it’s often a social occasion as they chat away with others. For others like the guy watching TV I suppose it’s a way to get out of the house and feel good about “exercising.”

Me, I ran six miles today then hopped on the stair master. I gotta stay fit for those ladies on the hair dye boxes. Some of them look back, ya know.

04 July 2015

The Fly Ball, Memories of My Dad

The ball seemed to hang there in mid air as if waiting for me to settle under it. It was a bright white orb contrasting with the dark blue Summer twilight. It finally fell landing gently in my glove as if it belonged there. I had that momentary thrill of having caught a fly ball. But I immediately flung the ball as if there was a runner on second thinking of tagging up. On two bounces the ball settled near my father. He looked in my direction acknowledging the catch and throw with a quick nod and smiling eyes.

It was one of those moments in life that has become eternal. I was 11 years old. My father had come home from work and offered to hit fly balls to me. He was a carpenter and had long work days and must have come home quite tired. He could have begged off further physical activity for the rest of the day. Dad could have taken a beer out of the refrigerator and relaxed in front of the TV. I would have thought not a whit less of him. But he wasn’t like that. My father reveled in being a parent. He loved my brother and I boundlessly and was always ready to — anxious to — entertain us, indulge us, make us happy.

Dad was remarkably adept at hitting fly balls — or if called for ground balls. Especially when one considers that he was born and raised in rural Finland and didn’t touch a bat and a ball or so much as see a baseball game until well into his 30s. He was a natural athlete.

My dad was a heroic figure to me. After all he’d fought in a war. Serving in the Finnish army during their brave battle against the powerful Soviet army in the Winter War. More than that he’d seen the world as a merchant marine and during World War II had been on two ships that were strafed by Nazi planes and a third that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. That story was the stuff of legends in our family. Dad was at the helm of the ship and was the first to spot the periscope. He brought it to the attention of the first mate who promptly scoffed at the notion that the object in the Arabian Sea was a periscope. He was not scoffing seconds later when a torpedo struck the middle of the ship.

This was the pinnacle of my dad’s storytelling but just one of many. In my mind I had a genuine hero as a father. Today when I consider how he raised me I see that his true heroism was evidenced by his parenting. That I grew up to be far far far far from perfect is no reflection on him and manifest of a plethora of other issues.

When I found my true athletic talent was as a soccer player, dad supported me however he could. I always got what I needed. Dad never minded paying a little more than average to outfit his boys. We didn’t expect nor did we receive high end items. That is until I started excelling in soccer. I got the best soccer shoes available and never mind that they were the most expensive. But what was more meaningful than this was that Dad came to all my games. And what was more meaningful than that was that Dad would even come to most of my practices. He couldn’t bear to miss a chance to see his youngest boy in action. It meant all the world to me to have him there. I never told him so. And he never told me how proud he was of me. He wasn’t demonstrative about it either. But I knew. I knew beyond any doubt that my father was proud of my athletic accomplishments. There was that nod of the head he gave me as I came off the pitch, sometimes accompanied by a hint of a smile.

When we won the state championship and I was the hero of the game he positively beamed and I gave him a half a hug. That was enough, we knew how we felt and demonstrations or effusions were not needed. A year later we were upset in the Northern California championship, essentially the state semi final. I was shattered. Dad stayed close by me but he knew not to offer a word or a pat on the back. He knew just to be there. I swear I don’t know how but he always knew what to do whether I had reached the heights or plunged to the depths. His presence was powerful and made everything okay.

Like a lot of successful people my father loved life. He plunged head long into it and never spent a lazy day. He worked hard and took pride in his work but he also knew when to turn off that switch and go into fun mode. He approached his recreation hours with the same sort of gusto he brought to his work. He also pursued fatherhood passionately and relentlessly. And I very much doubt that he was philosophical about any of this. He just did it. Dad was not one for musings, he was far too busy living life to think about it.

I always wanted to make my dad proud of me. I ended up on some disparate paths in which I grossly overindulged and wasted my talents for many years. Dad could see that I wasn’t making the most of my abilities. But he loved me just the same and always took an interest in whatever my latest scheme was. Maybe he could have tried to right my ship but he probably knew I’d have had none of it. He knew I had to make my own choices and live with them and that he’d always be there for me. A presence. I eventually turned my life around and his relief and pride were evident, if unspoken.

My father was not perfect. I probably know that better than anyone alive. I’ve looked square at his foibles, weaknesses and shortcomings. I had deified him for so long that it is only natural that the pendulum finally swung the other way a bit.

I think of my father every day. I’ve grown to become a very different person from what he was but share many of the same values and I still feel that steadiness that reliability that steadfastness of his that supported me while he was alive. My father’s death did not diminish that at all. His influence is still pervasive. Also I still have so many moments that remain indelible. Like waiting for that fly ball that he hit. The one that he hit after a full day of work. The one that he hit so we could have some more fun together. The one I caught and threw back and that he responded to with that little nod and the twinkling eyes.