“I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty”

“I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty”

Let’s pretend that someone is reading this post, in which case the question I pose is this:

Are you familiar with a peevish annoyance that operates only occasionally, or intermittently, out of mind for most of one’s lifetime, but when it hits, ay caramba, it supercharges the capacity for petulant obsession?

If no, read on to witness the perpetual folly of a man easily distracted. If yes, enjoy the momentary pang of displeasure that arrives with recognition of weakness of mind and character.

Chose your own adventure.

Here goes-

“… Yes, and I ain’t sayin you ain’t pretty

All I’m saying’s I’m not ready

For any person, place or thing

To try to pull the reins in on me.”

This deathless response to an uninvited suitor made popular by the group known as the “Stone Poneys”, lead vocal by a young Linda Ronstadt, just wronks the heck out of me, over and over again. The gripe is enhanced by my admiration for its author, Michael Nesmith. Yes, he was a Monkee, and that is a phrase I will likely not write again in this lifetime. I’ll get back to Nesmith, but even without knowing that the author of this drivel is an accomplished writer and producer, the lyrics themselves scream purposeful, deliberate illiteracy. The “any person place or thing” is an apallingly cute replacement for the word, “noun”. “Noun” is good, a good word, and not terribly tough to insert in that line. To beat this locution to death, Mike, you knew what a noun is; was your  intention to appeal to an unwashed mass of fiercely independent people who are grammar impaired, just schooled enough to know what you were talking about but unable to come up with the term? Were you sidling up to the unwashed tough guys smoking in the playground, pretending you finished sixth grade and then got distracted? 

And then … “I ain’t sayin”.

Well, once again, Mike, you stepped in a mess of your own making. “…I ain’t saying” followed by “All I’m saying’s” …”. Which is it? “Ain’t saying ” or “I’m saying”?  I ain’t or I am?

As you will recall, The Monkees were much too busy singing to put anybody down.

Me? Apparently not that busy.

Now, I ain’t sayin’ nobody should use the word “ain’t” when singing. I’ve heard professors of English recite You Aren’t Anything But A Hound Dog, and it is painful. Elvis Presley was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi; he can toss ain’ts around like confetti.

Nesmith’s mother was a typist who invented Liquid Paper, now known as White Out, originally as Mistake Out, which she sold to Gillette for 48 million dollars. A quick search reveals the enduring viability of the substance, once highly prized by teens keen on altering their diving licenses so as to purchase adult beverages. 48 MILLION dollars! That ain’t hay!

Nesmith died last year, leaving behind an impressive legacy in music, tv, and film. Michael Nesmith and The Second National Bank is considered a pioneer in country-rock music, his early experimental video work for Nickelodeon, Pop Clips, became the MTV network, and his production credits include Repo Man and Tapeheads, and what am gnawing on? 

You ain’t pretty.

Linda Ronstadt isn’t from Tupelo either. One of her grandfathers was an esteemed pioneer in Arizona, the other the inventor of the flexible rubber ice cube tray, another unexpectedly lucrative innovation, which brought him millions. Ronstadt’s career includes her popularity as the most successful concert rock chick, several highly regarded performances in Broadway musicals, the lead soprano role in The Pirates of Penzance, several critically acclaimed albums of jazz and standards produced with Nelson Riddle which reanimated the American Songbook, the “Trio” recordings with Dolly Paron and Emmy Lous Harris, and Cancions de mi Padre. Her voice was magical, and what do I hear over and over? 

“You ain’t pretty’”

The discerning reader will wonder what it is about these phrases that sets me off again and again other than the conscious dumbing down of lyrics. Surely there is trauma somewhere, they intuit, hidden in this mealy mouthed critique of popular culture. “Feh” I say, and “Rubbish”. I may have used “ain’t” freely at home in my first formative years in a country public school, but that had nothing to do with my being sent away to boarding school as I bid my ninth year a fond farewell. I had learned to spit too, through my teeth, with accuracy and distance, which I’m sure was a far more disturbing habit. In but a few years I had discarded my rustic skills and learned to move into polite society ain’t free and rarely spitting.

So, no grist for the mill there.

Have you read …?

Have you read …?

I believe in love at first sight, sense of humor in dogs, and the rare experience of finding a true book friend. Maybe not so rare, as I have met three or four people whose reading world mapped roughly the same region as mine and whose impulse it was to bring an author or book into the conversation within the first five minutes of our acquaintance. Such folks do exist, often in the least likely setting. Consider my agitated fictional friend Holden Caulfield, self-proclaimed illiterate, who got a huge kick out of a novel such as Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and wished authors like Ring Lardner were close friends so that he could call them on the phone when he felt like it. I’m pretty certain that Holden’s creator, professionally reclusive J.D. Salinger, would not have answered a phone call from a wanna-be-book-friend, but it’s the impulse that counts.

An absolutist would argue that there are two kinds of people in the world – those for whom books must be gushed about and recommended and those for whom many other interests compete for brain space. Let’s leave that observation behind; we’ve got enough absolutism and division for one century. The point is, when you meet a book friend, you KNOW.

Of course, engaging with an ambitious reader can be exhausting. So many books, so little time. And, over the years, some peculiarities of preference become more clear, challenging the befriended to open a book they would not otherwise have chosen. Some books are opened and read to the end; others lie gathering dust on a bedside table. Still, no harm in gushing.

I have met only a few prominent authors along the way, and though I’m inclined to think that none would welcome a phone call, I am grateful to have heard their voices. I met Louise Erdrich once; I’ve never made a phone call although I admire her greatly and have been tempted to walk into her Minneapolis bookshop, Birchbark Books, on the off chance that she might drop in. Erdrich and Michael Dorris spoke at a workshop I attended in 1991, before I had read their work. I was thrown off a bit by the workshop leader, an Episcopal priest, who introduced them as American Indian parents of a troubled son. Dorris had just written The Broken Cord, a description of the challenges he and Erdrich faced in raising a son born with fetal alcohol syndrome. It would turn out that Dorris and Erdrich had a number of other significant challenges. Their storied marriage and literary collaboration ended in divorce; Dorris took his own life in 1997. Erdrich has become one of the authors whose books fill my shelves. In the years since Dorris’ death, she wrote Love Medicine, one of the novels I gush about, and another eighteen novels, short fiction, poetry, and children’s books – 29 books in all, including her most recent, The Sentence.

That’s where today’s musing really begins. I’ve read all but two of her novels, loved some entirely, loved some less. She captivates me in those moments when she, the author, the narrator, and the otherworldly mingle for a moment, when collective voices and soul flash brightly then retreat to ordinary time and space. Reviewers have described Erdrich as a writer who “flirts” with magical realism, an assessment I find inadequate. Her narrative style has also been called fragmented, unrealistic, and particular to her Ojibwe heritage. Again, inadequate. The legacy of colonialism and subversion of Native identity informs all of her work, of course, but it is Erdrich’s use of language that is of greatest interest this morning as I put down The Sentence every few pages to wonder at what I have read.

The novel’s narrator (for all but one instructive passage) is a woman sent to prison whose life and mind in confinement are saved by the gift of a dictionary, the best choice, the narrator reminds us, of an object to grab before stepping onto a desert island. She is transfixed by words, most notably the word “sentence”, a word that describes her term of incarceration and also the tightly defined and utterly pliable agency of language, usually containing subject and predicate (but not always) and which conveys a statement, question, exclamation, or command. The examples that intoxicate her in her confinement are, “Open the door.” and “Go”.

The novel is a ghost story of sorts in which both varieties of sentence have their place. Erdrich has happily welcomed the supernatural into her narrative, explaining that the tissue which separates us from the other is thin at times, permeable. The narrator herself in one moment of crisis is described as more porous than others. The novel operates within the decomposition of life during the Covid plague years and describes life in translation of Native people trying to claim their identity and the mess and muddle that is love, but it’s on my mind today because it is also fearlessly about words, the incantatory power of words, and, to return to the subject at hand, books.

The central character works in a bookstore, Erdrich’s bookstore in Minneapolis. Louise Erdrich shows up from time to time in the novel, offering thoughtful counsel at a distance from the narrator’s story. I now know much more about the business of running a bookstore, if it can be called a business. Erdrich’s account of the marginal viability of her store convinces me that independent bookstores are spiritual soup kitchens, hanging on because readers need sustenance and unheralded books need to be read. Our narrator is a born-again reader whose dedication to the store and to books includes the curating of reading lists. At the end of the novel, we find a comprehensive list by category, but throughout the narrative, characters and authors bounce into each other on a daily basis. I kept a list of books as I read, checking frequently to see if my library had them on the shelves (rarely) or if the various E-libraries could beam me the book for a few weeks. The clients of this real/fictional bookstore are grateful for the recommendations the narrator passes along, but they and the other employees of the store binge so quickly that they seem needy rather than reflective. The massing of titles, however, allows the endorsement of underappreciated authors.

I appreciate the treasure hunt now begun, but I miss the insistent energy of conversation with my human book friends. If we’ve both read a book, there are juicy particulars to savor; if recommending a book, I have to find the middle ground between dissipating some of the book’s magic and simply tossing a title in the air. We each have particular shelves that stand outside shared interests. I read mysteries and slipstream fiction, for example, gushing about Amy Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but have a pretty steadfast allergy to books about naval warfare with the exception of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series. How did I happen to pick up Beat to Quarters? Ernest Hemingway (not a personal book friend) recommended Forester to every literate person he knew. That was a club I wanted  to join. So, thanks, Ernest.

Stephen Colbert used the term, “Quarantinewhile”, to introduce events taking place in the last two years. Quarantinewhile I have had to rely on the enthusiasms of authors I admire rather than the spontaneous conversation with book friends. Some authors are generous in expressing enthusiasm for other authors; some admit that they don’t read. Without particularly plumping for the slipstream genre, it has to be said that authors of that not-yet universally celebrated inclination celebrate each other at the drop of a hat. The greatest recent influence recently, however, has come in reading George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading, and Life.

Writing, reading, and life … yup …for me,  that’s what friends are for. In the hope of finding another book friend or two, I’ll end with a provocation: 

In addition to a dictionary, what five books would you grab before being shipwrecked on a desert island?


February is almost spring, right?

February is almost spring, right?

Groundhogs throughout the frozen north have done their duty. Some have promised an escape from winter in six weeks, others threaten ice and snow for another month and a half. You say potato, etc. Death, taxes, and unshakable prognostication by rodents remain inescapable. February slides resolutely by; the chocolate-fueled love-fest that is Valentine’s Day is only a few hours away. 

It’s almost baseball.

The Cactus League Spring Training Season opens on the 28th of February as the Angels face the Brewers on the American Family Fields of Phoenix. Once simply known as Maryvale, the Brewer’s park and the training facility are owned and operated by suburban Maryvale’s Park and Recreation Department. It’s easy to find; take a right off Indian School Road after passing Fry’s Food and Drug, just past the entrance to Maryvale High School on 51st Avenue. I’ve been told that the park can hold up to 7000 fans, and that may be true, although seats are rarely filled, perhaps because a third of the fans are lined up in front of the Klements Bratwurst stand.

Maryvale has long been my favorite park; there are no bad seats and the dimensions are pleasing. The left field fence is 350 feet from home plate, the right field fence 340 feet, and center 400 feet. I’ll get back to baseball in a moment, but I should add that Brewer fans are an uncommonly midwestern and outgoing tribe, relishing the sun, beer, brats, and their beloved Brewers. A few sport Seattle Pilots caps, honoring the club that became the Brewers in moving to Milwaukee, but Milwaukee Brewer fandom abounds although the Brewers record from 1969 to the present is under .500 (.483) and they remain one of the few teams without a World Series victory in their history.  Things have slightly picked up recently; the Brewers have won their divisional title twice in the last four years and edged a wild card berth twice,bowing out of the postseason  with losses to the Dodgers, Braves, and Nats.

There are many reasons one might wish to be in Maryvale on February 28th aside from the brats, beer, and the famous racing sausages (Italian, Polish, Brat, Chorizo, and Hot Dog). The Brewers’ Willy Adams is one of the exquisitely talented generation of shortstops playing baseball this season, and Christian Yelich, the NL MVP in 2018, may be one of the best bets to win the Triple Crown. 

Turning to the Angels, however, HOLY GUACAMOLE!!!!

With apologies to William Wordsworth, “Bliss it is in that dawn to be alive” as Mike Trout and Shohei Otani appear on the same team, on the same field, at the same time. It’s not bad to be around as Mookie Betts comes into his own as well, but that’s another story.

Trout is Roy Hobbs, Ernie Banks, a sober Mickey Mantle, and Santa Claus. He literally showed up with presents for a family whose house had burned down. He returns every year to his high school in Millville, New Jersey to visit the baseball team and gives one player a jersey bearing the number he wore in high school. Oh, and he’s always a top contender for the MVP award, winning three times and barely missing with four second place tallies. Considered the best player in baseball since he entered the league in 2012, Trout suits up, shows up, and plays hard. He has been clocked at 6.5 seconds in the 60 yard dash, and he is fearless. To watch Mike Trout play baseball is to be reminded of what genius in cleats looks like.

Otani, on the other hand, a dominating pitcher and powerful hitter has been called a unicorn.

Feh!

Otani is a manticore – a human with body of a lion, the wings of a dragon, and the tail of a scorpion, six foot four, 210 pounds, throws right, bats left, MLB ERA of 3.53 with a won-loss record of 13-5, 221 strikeouts, 93 home runs, and 247 runs batted in. In the “just-not-fair” category, he is also the fastest man in baseball in sprinting to first base.

Look, the Angels are probably not going to contend for a playoff spot this season; a good year would bring them above the .500 mark. But, as Zeno of Citium might have said, “I don’t care”. 

Watch Mike Trout while you can. Don’t miss an Otani start. Watch Connor McDavid even though the Oilers won’t win the Stanley Cup. Spend an hour with Bradley Beale even if the Wizards make a fan self-digest. Ditto Chris Paul. Imagine NOT seeing Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Ken Griffey, Jr, Tony Gwynn. Imagine never seeing Barry Sanders’ 47 yard TD run aganst the Dallas Cowboys.

February 28th, the American Family Fields, Maryvale, just past the middle school playground, the smell of brats in the air, this season’s Angels taking infield practice, this season’s Brewers tossing long balls, the crack of batted balls, the slap of a sizzling rope from third to first hitting the mitt, a throw down to second base, the umpire brushing home plate.

It’s almost baseball.

30% Chance of light dusting by morning

30% Chance of light dusting by morning

I wake to an impressive, unexpected snowfall and my thoughts turn to the team of weatherfolk on our local television station, WFSB, serving Hartford and New Haven. Although our paths in the real world have not crossed, I can tell they truly are a team; their hail-fellow-well-met lively patter is clearly unrehearsed and sincere. They take their work seriously, though; they have maps.

We are newly arrived in Connecticut, and (how to put this gently?) don’t give a rip about the upcoming tilt between the Bacon Wildcats (Colchester) and the Woodstock Centaurs (Woodstock), except to wonder, of course, how the Centaurs came to be a school mascot. We DO care about the weather, and it is in the pursuit of timely information that we tune in each evening at six, suffering through taped debates of wastewater issues in Bristol in order to glean some slight sense of what is about to happen to our roof and yard.

It has been my contention for some time that we might as well buy a used Magic Eight Ball, slosh it around, and ask if rain or snow is likely. I’ve done my research; the clouded Eight Ball screen offers 20 possible responses, 10 of which are positive, five uncertain, and five negative. Not too shabby. To be fair, the predictive authority of weather teams everywhere is at least as helpful as that offered by economists and on-line dating sites.

That said, snow is on the ground, and that’s that. Except that it isn’t. The next twenty hours of keenly observant reporting from the WFSB weather team will document the distribution of that snowfall, flake-by-flake. We’ll see snow plows, hats decorated with reindeer, and slick highways glistening with snow melt or gritty with freshly spread sand. Since the team didn’t see this one coming (or if they did,  chose not to share their vision with those of us tuned in at six), tonight’s broadcast will explain why the sky fell and how likely it is to fall again.

Lest you think my meteorological nattering is directed at the entire universe of weather reporters, I hasten to correct the record.

We lived in Alabama for five years (I know) where DOPPLER RADAR reports were constant and absolutely necessary. You want weather? Live anywhere south of Indiana. The day after we arrived in Connecticut a major snowfall covered the Farmington Valley; the week before we landed in Huntsville, a tornado tore the roof off the neighborhood school. Yes, there are tornadoes elsewhere, including Connecticut, where an earlier and misbegotten turn of events brought us to the Northwest Corner only days before a tornado took out an entire forest, but heightened awareness of the possibility of months of chaos in Tornado Alley is another thing altogether. Red sky in the morning may be a sailor’s warning in New England; green sky at noon was more than enough warning for us.

We did spend more time above ground than in our comfy sheltered basement, but all we needed was the slightest suggestion of a pending whirlwind to scurry down below. So, there we were, cookies and crayons at hand, prepared to wait out whatever tumult the gods had in mind, watching the local news team report from ground zero.

Hmmm. When I say local news team I mean the lowest ranking, newly hired, youngest “reporter” whose mission it was to stand in the face of gale force wind and driving rain in order to share their estimation of the pain brought by stinging pellets of hail, sleet, and pavement. Some voices were more authentic than others. An on-camera voice from the midst of a cloud of something white and green shouted obscenities obscured by flotsam but impressive nonetheless. 

A savvy tyro simply refused to get out of the news van. “Not going out. Not going out.” Sensible and really all I needed to know. 

Today, here in Connecticut, we’re just back from a pleasant walk inside our snow globe, hanging up our scarves and mittens and about ready to bust out the soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ll give the Eyewitness News team a chance to explain how they meant to say several inches and plowed driveways rather than light dusting and open roads, but no hard feelings. 

Who doesn’t love surprises?

 Reply hazy. Try again. 

“A tentative fungo in a field of surmise …”

“A tentative fungo in a field of surmise …”

I’d like to report that meetings of the faculty in schools such as those in which I worked are universally compelling, but if they are, and they are only rarely, it arrives as a debate about dress code devolves into character assasination, accusations of perfidy, and the sudden extinction of life-long friendships. There have been, however, a few moments in which the level of discourse has risen to memorable heights. I was a young teacher, unaware that it would be decades before another inspired comment would rock me to the core, when a colleague, a somewhat crusty Ivy educated country gentleman, pitched (and I use the word with some satisfaction) the following preface to remarks on grading, or bus etiquette, or trays missing from the dining hall,or a topic of equally grave concern:

“This is just a tentative fungo into a field of surmise …” he began.

Let the word “surmise” linger in your imagination for a bit as I wander into reflection on the purpose of hitting fungos.

I sit on a crisp winter’s day, glistening mounds of snow heaped along the side of the driveway, trees standing naked before me, thinking about baseball, as one does in early February in the week before pitchers and catchers are expected to report to training camp. The configuration of the next season is in question, but spring training will begin, and a coach somewhere will lift a fungo bat and loft a high fly ball to an outfielder straining to follow the arc of the ball in the harsh Arizona (or Florida) sun. Designed solely for the purpose of lofting baseballs, the fungo bat is of little use in any other aspect of the game. It’s longer and lighter than other bats, often made of ash. Here’s where some muddle may intrude; as a verb, fungo is the act of hitting a ball high in the air. Then too, the balls in flight are themselves called fungoes. 

In the early years of our marriage, my wife was puzzled one mid-evening as we drove by illuminated baseball fields in the Illinois heartland watching men and boys practice and play baseball as the long day cooled.

 “I’d like to pull over and shag some fungoes,” I said with conviction.

“Huh,” she advised.

John Toffey, the English teacher whose phrase resounds through the years, found the perfect metaphor in identifying a lightly held opinion tossed into a speculative conversation – a tentative fungo in a field of surmise.

I share the phrase now, in my personal mid-evening as my days cool, in order to remind myself of the elegant language of baseball. It is in the heat of a match that tennis players may shout, Love All, a heartening sentiment but not in this context. Golf has given us, Play it as it lays, a useful shorthand for playing by the rules and a sporty riff on Lao Tsu’s observation “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Football’s gritty aphorism, Winning Isn’t everything; It’s the only thing, attributed to UCLA coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders and occasionally to Packer’s legendary coach Vince Lombardi, is a puzzling construction in that “everything” and “only thing” are not separated by much in terms of intensity, and yet there is a clear escalation by the end of the phrase. Other configurations might raise similar questions, as in “Survival isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Well yes, in that as a state of being it is absolute, and no, because we might hope there is more to life than merely staying alive. 

I remember John Toffey’s locution with gratitude; it is one of the phrases I most enjoy trotting out on the rare occasions in which surmise is at hand. Today’s challenge is in coming up with other baseball related terminology that can be put to use in more general conversation. There are a plethora of genuinely startling terms in the lexicon of baseball, many more than are found in other enterprises. I can’t explain why invention is more pronounced in baseball, but I present but a few of the terms any fan would recognize from the crack of the bat:

Chin music – a pitch that is high and inside also known as High Cheese and High Cheddar

Can of Corn – an easy pop fly

Pop Fly – a high batted ball that does not leave the infield

Rhubarb – a scrap, quarrel, or fight between players teams, coaches and umpires

Texas Leaguer – a ball that drops between the infield and the outfield

Worm Burner – a sharply hit ground ball

The Hot Corner – third base

Pickle – a runner caught between two fielders in a rundown

Banjo Hitter – a hitter that put together a string of blooped hits 

In the Hole – the batter after the batter on deck

Eephus – a lobbed pitch that wobbles

Cricket, the sport that may have spawned baseball, has its arcane observations. Without any knowledge of the game, we’ve seen enough movies and read enough books to know that a bit of a sticky wicket is not a good thing. Don’t go looking for help with the phrase as the word “wicket” has several uses in the terminology of the sport. Let’s agree that in this instance, the wicket is an area of the field (pitch) that with overuse or heavy rain can get gummy just as situations in life can occasionally gum up.

All of that said, metaphors have to eclipse the particular in order to express the otherwise inexpressible, thus the tentative fungo. An obvious description already in use is fielder’s choice, in baseball pithy shorthand for a play in which a fielder makes a play to a base other than first, allowing the batter to arrive at first safely. For one locked in romance, however, such as Archie, the exuberant comic book lothario who plays the field, smitten by both Betty and Veronica, a fielder’s choice means being forced to pick one over the other with clear expectation of loss no matter which play is made.

Coming in with spikes high describes the aggressive and possibly injurious slide of a runner intent on stealing a base. Ty Cobb, perhaps the meanest son-of-a-gun (an oddity of biology?) to play the game, likely sharpened his spikes before each game, perhaps to improve traction, perhaps to intimidate the second baseman waiting to be speared, perhaps to spear a second baseman. Similarly, an aggressive and perhaps preemptive verbal start to a difference of opinion might intend traction, intimidation, or injury. “I may be coming in with my spikes too high,” might be a way to indicate an awareness of the distress a sharpened comment can cause. Suggesting that a solution is obvious, a can of corn, however, can be provocative as we are often in a pickle, caught in a rundown, caught off base, rather than seeing the inescapable solution to an issue.

I’m free of faculty meetings these days, so I won’t have a chance to accuse a colleague of throwing high cheddar, high cheese, playing chin music, no, I’m just offering a tentative fungo in a field of surmise.

Thanks, John.

Stop the presses!

Stop the presses!

In 2016 the universe coughed up a national smorgasbord of shame and pain, a cataclysmic upending of truth, justice, and the American way. In a desperate attempt to support the correcting of our course, I subscribed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Atlantic, recognizing that  if I valued the truth, I had better be prepared to pay the truth tellers who shovel through the banks of slime on a daily basis. 

They did and do their best, and I still subscribe, faintly appreciative of their dedication to their craft as they report the muddle of the first year of the Biden presidency and very much aware of the tumult that may arrive again before institutions have been fully restored. These are not jolly times; pandemics generally disappoint. I seek comfort where I can find it, skimming the accounts of Putin’s attempts to allow us to feel the pain of losing hegemony in Europe as Russia did with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in order to slowly absorb the Washington Post’s account of seismic change in Mars Candy’s branding of M&M’s.

 “Democracy Dies in Darkness” the Post’s banner promises, and so reporter Emily Heil shines the light on the forthcoming alteration of identity among the cast that the company describes as their “mascots”, the anthropomorphised sugar coated blobs of chocolate whose animated “adventures’ preceded the start of any film released in theaters until theater doors were shuttered.

It was not until I started to write about the “characters” that I realized that some had names – Ms. Green, Ms. Brown – while others were “male” and simply identified as Yellow or Red; I struggled then with the orthographic challenge in presenting the brand’s name. Mars, Incorporated, the forty billion dollar a year enterprise and the sixth largest privately held company in the US, describes it as M& M’s, the apostrophe a legacy of the unlikely sharing of resources owned by Forrest Mars,who held the patent on the process by which sugar coating could be hardened around a chocolate filling, and the monopoly on chocolate held by Hershey’s Chocolate Company during WWII. Hershey’s president, William Murrrie, was the other possessive “M”.

Here’s an aside that will be of interest to a small sliver of the population: Hershey was celebrated in popular culture during my youth as the company whose products needed no advertisement or promotion; that was a myth, of course, but still, no Hershey barrage for the most part. With regard to mascots, the only ripple in the Hershey stream are the costumed characters’ ‘ such as “Twizzlers’ ‘ and “Milk Dud’ ‘who are available for dance parties and selfies at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. My son and I were grabbed by Mr. Goodbar some years ago, but he seems to have been relegated to the trash heap of discarded icons, perhaps due to the notoriety he experienced when Hershey’s discontinued the use of cocoa butter, demoting his nutty goodness from “milk chocolate” to “chocolate candy”.

The Mars family, on the other hand, has been pumping out (pUmping out) its candy for decades, offering the “…melts in your mouth – not in your hands” line since 1949. The family of anthropomorphic candies has grown gradually, from the first pair (plain and peanut) who dove naked into a bath of chocolate to the alluring Ms. Green whose strip tease was almost as disturbing as the cognitive dissonance between “likeable” characters and the certainty of their being eaten, ostensibly “alive”.

Heil’s article is whimsy packed and lightly snarked, essentially illustrating the gap between the Mars initiative to bring greater representation of color and heritage to their team and the sensibilities of reasonably evolved contemporary humans. Heil fails to mention, however, that this initiative is not the first attempt to broaden the appeal of their confections. Any connoisseur of M& M’s in 2001 would remember the ill-conceived attempt to appeal to an Hispanic market with the production of the dulce de leche tablets, distributed in a select few locales – Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, San Antonio, and McAllen-Brownsville, Texas.

Pero, no, señor Mars. De ninguna manera.

The greater amusement is to be found in reading the Mars Brand press release: “Iconic M & M’s Brand Announces Global Commitment to Creating a World Where Everyone Belongs!” Should the reader think this pronouncement conveys an exaggerated importance of candy branding in a troubled world, Mars assures the reader that elements of global influence are already in place.

“The iconic candy brand’s announcement is built on more than 80 years of bringing people together with its bite-sized colorful candies and flavors and is part of the evolved M&M’S brand’ strategy built on purpose, which promises to use the power of fun to include everyone, with a goal of increasing the sense of belonging for 10 million people around the world by 2025.”

There are so many juicy morsels to parse here, starting with “… the evolved M&M’s brand strategy built on purpose” and sliding right into the “power of fun”, and let us remember that this is the Mars Candy empire describing itself, but grotesqueries of even greater consequence are yet to come.

After citing studies which indicate that humans like to be loved and to belong, the corporation delineates the evolution of branding dedicated to making sure that all people have access to the experiences where,”everyone feels they belong.” The initiatives in short are these:

  1. More nuanced personalities for the beloved characters allowing the power of storytelling to emerge.
  2. More variety of colors and shapes of M&M’s “lentils across all touchpoints to prove that all together, we’re more fun.:
  3. Added emphasis on the ampersand (&) demonstrating the aim to bring people together
  4. Inclusive, welcoming, and unifying tone of voice “rooted in our signature jester wit and humor.”

As any social scientist would be quick to explain, I am not making this up. In my most madcap excess of imagination, I could not have come up with “signature jester wit” as a description of a scantily clad Ms. Green’s attempts to cadge votes as a swimsuit model “working the polls” by straddling a stripper pole in go-go boots and handcuffs

Fox News’ non journalist Tucker Carlson, has claimed his place in the pantheon of nay sayers by lamenting the lack of sex appeal accomanying the newly nuanced Ms. Brown and Ms. Green. “You wouldn’t want to have a drink with any of them,” he complains after asserting that in being turned off by all colors of candy we have achieved equity. Yes, Ms. Brown, a nuanced female executive, no longer wears stiletto heels (she has feet?), and Yellow, formerly an idiot voiced in turn by John Goodman and J.K. Simmons, is no longer actively drooling, but the most creative shift may be in presenting Orange as the embodiment of Generation Z anxiety.

Eating characters we love is bound to make us feel that we belong to a global community of predatory consumers, and what could be more fun than that.

M&M’s – melts in your mind, not in your hands.

Co-Incidents

Co-Incidents

I’m writing from a universe of boxes, crates, and objects I hadn’t realized we owned. There’s much to be said about the process of looking at my life in retrospect as I pack or discard the detritus that has travelled with me for more than fifty years. Much to be said, but not today.

Cogitation has barely returned as I’ve been lost in conjecture and projection for months, imagining the life I might lead on the opposite coast, in a new house, among strangers. In this life, however, the one in which I am actually living, two events arrived with enough emotional pull to carry me momentarily into the present. 

More than one born-again intentional thinker has advised me (relentlessly and with grating sanctimony) that the only reality is the one we create in our mind. Ok, sure, but there is an outside through which this mind lumps along and things occur out there without identifying themselves as significant or ephemeral. In the course of a day, events rub up against each other, and while recycling or doing errands, some hop into the forefront and others recede into the mist, never to be heard from again.The incidents that stick hang out together; they are co-incidents.

Coincidentally, then, on the same day, a three-legged deer was trapped in our pasture and I was stuck in a long line with a one-legged man.

About deer: Real deer were hypothetical creatures for much of my life. I’m pretty certain that outside of film and tv, the only deer I encountered were decorative, which made sense, I thought, in that their place in the food chain put them at risk every day of their highly vigilant lives. Their job, for the most part, was to make sure I didn’t see them. In the abstract, deer were shy, graceful citizens of a leafy word in which I had no part to play. Virtual unicorns.

In southern Oregon, however, deer are not only plentiful but intrusive. I first thought the yellow signs showing deer leaping were suggesting photo opportunities, but in fact they do indicate the trails the deer prefer to travel, all of which put them in the path of vehicles at high speed. In more densely populated areas, they just show up – on the lawn, in the garage, on the sidewalk, and in Ashland, on the steps of the library. Friends have cautioned me to keep an eye out for deer when walking the dogs, as they have been known to attack humans and pets. It was to laugh.  A deer attack, you say? Perhaps the doves are getting feisty this season as well?

Deer are the most dangerous animals on the continent, killing more humans than any other animal, more dangerous, for example, than sharks.

(CUE CELLOS: BUM BUM!)

 Of course, most of those deaths occur as vehicles traveling at speed meet a hefty deer leaping into their path or dawdling on the center line, but this description of the deer’s occasional spurts of animus gives cause for concern -”They can charge, kick, or stomp at anyone they perceive as a threat.”

No stompings here, and we love the change of seasons as fawns appear, clunk across our pasture in awkward adolescent play, grow more confident in their herd and more timid as we throw open a door before they have finished noshing on the apples that have fallen on the ground. We see a few sprout fuzzy antlers and a few who have been injured.

We don’t know how the three-legged deer lost its leg. It’s a yearling and may have frozen in someone’s headlights. It remains a part of the herd, showing up from time to time in the orchard or, less gracefully, on our long driveway, caught between our car and the road at the far end. The fencing is fairly low there, so even the smallest are able to clear it when nudged.

I’ve seen three-legged dogs and cats, and I’ve seen them prosper; they’ve carried on with their daily rounds without complaint, their lives seemingly ordinary. I hold my breath each time our three-legged deer begins her approach, knowing that a failed attempt will bring panic and injury. Last week our herd sprang gently across the horizon, the three-legged deer bringing up the rear, ignoring the lowest fence in order to explore the corner nearest the house, a brambly corner. The fence is high there, and blackberry thorns add several inches to the barrier. 

The herd leapt, leaving one deer behind. She paced along the fence line as we watched from inside the house. When it became clear that she was well and truly stuck, I walked around the house, entering the fenced area quietly. She saw me, froze, then scurried to the farthest and lowest edge and jumped.

Later that morning I stopped in at the pharmacy. Here in the mildly less terrifying stage of pandemic, the totally inevitable economic free fall has taken a peculiar turn. Everybody’s hiring and nobody is available to hire. The mail is slow, fries are cold by the time they reach the counter, and the pharmacy in our small town has a single employee to accept and fill every prescription while puncturing customers who would like to avoid the next wave of Covid and the “ordinary” flu. 

I’m retired and a spiritual giant, so standing around the pharmacy is not tough duty, but it’s clearly riling up a passel of my neighbors. The parking lot was full when I pulled in. I expected a longer line and a longer wait in line than usual; I didn’t slip off to my happy place, but I was reasonably serene.The woman in front of me, however, came undone when she learned no vaccine was on hand, and the voice behind me informed me that once again the government had conspired to rob, cheat, and maim ordinary freedom loving people of high character.

The pitch of his lecture was rising as I turned to face him, determined to meet confrontation with composure. Most of the elements of provocation were in place. Red face, bulging eyes, “2024 Revenge Tour” T shirt, camo Trump hat. The only things missing were a mask (required for admission to the pharmacy) and one leg.

A flap of denim was pinned to his hip. He leaned on a cane, his single foot in a running shoe, raising the obvious but unvoiced question about what had happened to the other shoes over the years. The rant wore down as I continued to listen, ending with the complaint that the vaccine was a dangerous hoax; some guy, he told me, had received the vaccine and developed Bell’s Palsy the next morning.

I suggested that it had saved lives; he disagreed, and reminded me that the government was tireless in its attempt to steal liberty from ordinary people. He filled me in on the motorcycle accident that had severed his leg at the hip and described the effects of cancer on his bowels. He was heading into surgery again the next day and needed the total flush kit waiting at the pharmacy. 

Noting the signs indicating that Covid testing had been suspended that week, he grunted, “Don’t know why they have to drive that thing into your brain. It’s just the flu. Snot should be enough.”

Not having much to say about that, I wished him well on his upcoming visit to the hospital, an expression I thought relatively benign, but he came back quickly with his hope that he could catch Covid on this trip in order to see what it might be like.

Co-incidents. Two encounters I had not imagined when I awoke, and two that appear worlds apart at first glance. They aren’t actually. It had been easy to summon empathy for a hobbling deer; it was considerably more difficult to withhold contempt in encountering a man whose views are not mine. We are in perilous times, and lies abound; every day brings another outrage and another insight into the dark manipulation of people such as the man about to go under the knife again. Kindness came quickly to mind as the deer struggled; kindness was not my first response to a stranger’s mangled explication of our lives and times. 

I keep an eye out for the deer each morning and delight in its membership in the small herd that trots by from time to time. Delight is not the first word that comes to mind when imagining another hour in conversation with a hobbled mind, but neither is contempt.

Zen and the Art of Rejection

Zen and the Art of Rejection

Well, it rained a bit this afternoon, the air grew thicker by the second, the complexity of contemporary existence pushed me into the dark midnight of the soul, so, what the hell? 

I did it again. 

Never one to learn from yesterday’s brutal assessment of my value as a human, I submitted a revision of my college guide to a publisher and 30 pages of my most recent novel to an agent. Over the years the methods by which writers present their work has changed, but like death and taxes, the outcome arrives with grim certainty:

“Thank you for sending your submission our way, but we have to pass on your project / it’s not the right fit for us / we’re not right for your work / we cannot use it at this time / this is but one reader’s opinion, but this submission doesn’t work for me” and so on.

At least the responses come quickly; many agents and publishers now maintain a site on which a decision is entered within a few days of a submission or query sent by email. I’m registered as a supplicant and invited to check the site to see how intrigued the editor/agent is by my work. 

Spoiler alert: Persistently not intrigued at all.

In earlier years the process was considerably more complicated and expensive. I typed (badly) several hundred pages, some number of which were then jammed in a package with a self-addressed, stamped envelope so that the unwanted submission could be returned to me. I rarely had a copy as typing with carbon paper was a tricky business. One of my plays, A Night of Terror, laughingly presented as a musical, now exists only as mimeographed copies of the script given to actors when the play was performed. Messy and almost illegible. I did not keep score in those days, but my guess is that the average time between submission and the return of my unread manuscript was about eight weeks.

Now I and millions of others can zip an entire manuscript to the ends of the earth and can expect a response of some sort within a week or two. I’m not waxing hyperbolic in suggesting that millions of unpublished authors are out there hoping to find a place on America’s bookshelves. Before the artist’s retreat known as the pandemic arrived, more than a million projects were handled each year by the self-publishing juggernaut at Amazon. Who knows how many lightly edited great works could be rushed to my home with a single keystroke. Formerly known as Create Space and now as Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s software has made self publishing child’s play, easy and inexpensive. 

There is some comfort in knowing that as my books are published on demand, which is to say when I or any of the other four readers buy my book, only a single copy is printed. I won’t find discounted copies of my books in a cardboard bin in the grocery store; no dusty copies languish on remainder tables.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

I’m rarely stumped in pursuing instant research on any subject, but estimating the number of magazines and websites offering advice to aspiring writers is problematic. I tried every search I could imagine and was presented with more than seven billion references to particular magazines and information hubs, none offering any guess at how many rabbit holes writers can access in print or online. 

I’ve been knocking on publishing doors for years but still look for help in placing at least one of my babies up for adoption somewhere. Letters seeking representation by an agent are known as queries, and one could hop among innumerable articles offering advice on how to craft a query. I looked at a few, again before contacting yet another agent identified as one accepting clients. Great advice to be had, but, Nah, I stuck to my jocular conversational gambit and let the chips fall where they may. Self deprecation is my stock in trade; why not approach an agent in the same key?

Here’s the “pitch”:

The odds of this book reaching any reader, any eyes but my own are stunningly low. My earlier confection, Afterwards, has yet to sell a copy. That’s not entirely true; I placed a copy on the local authors’ shelf in our independent bookstore and bought it some weeks later, expecting the few bucks owed us local authors when one of our books rockets off the shelf. I’m still waiting for the check.  It’s been two years. My expectation is that this volume will join the others in languid security floating in the nether world of publication on demand.

Why you might ask, if in some moment of addled confusion you picked up this book thinking it a prescient piece of social criticism, why do I write if not to be read?

Thanks for asking. Fair question. The easy answer is that I wake in the morning with ideas I want to write about. Even if no one reads a word. A more reflective answer is that it fills each day with purpose, exercises my mind, and generally amuses me.

 I also sing in the car with no expectation of being heard,  pretend I hear the roar of the crowd as I loft a jump shot at the netless hoop in the park’s playground,  talk to my dogs with a French accent, and offer jokes to my children with the presumption that the response will be muted. I enjoy writing almost as much as I enjoy the French accent with the dogs.

Even as I write this piece, I discover that some goblin has been trotting through the pages I just sent to the agent, moving sections of sentences willy nilly. That’s what we professional writers call a death wish. 

Yikes and Ah Well and time to check the rejection machine once again.

Step Right Up…

Step Right Up…

Ladies and Gentleman, I PAY to face the Learned League, some 20,000 of my closest friends, competing daily in providing answers to grotesquely difficult questions posed by a relentlessly erudite quizmeister whose nom-de-jou is Thorsten A. Integrity. Like the Football Association Premier League Limited, The Learned League practices relegation; those who shine move up from one “rundle” to the next while those whose sheen has faded moved to the next lower “rundle” in order to find competition appropriate to their ability.

The first season, the “Rookie Season”, is free. Once hooked, the aspiring contestant pays an annual fee in order to be reminded on a daily basis that their very small window on the world is very small indeed. I’m not sure how Thorsten A. Integrity generates questions as some are reasonably within the competence of ordinary humans while others are chock-a-block with questions so ornate that it takes several readings just to figure out what’s being asked.

Burying the lead as is my wont, I’m actually going somewhere else, but having introduced the League, I feel compelled to offer a random selection of questions to illustrate the point not yet made and to moderate my feelings of inadequacy this afternoon as I face relegation for the first time.

Here are three not-uncommonly-obscure questions from the previous week’s array:

  1. FOOD/DRINK – A certain cutting implement, which usually has handles on each end and is rocked back and forth to chop and mince items such as herbs, cheeses, and meats, gets its name from its crescent-like shape. What is that Italian name?
  2.  SCIENCE – There are six distinctly named phase changes of matter: freezing (liquid to solid), melting (solid to liquid), condensation (gas to liquid), vaporization (liquid to gas), deposition (gas to solid), and what sixth, which is solid to gas?
  3.  LANGUAGE – The Khoisan language families are distinctive among languages of the world for their extensive use of certain consonants that linguists—and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)—describe using what word?

I see hands raised and eager onlookers shouting out the answers. You win if you came up with MEZZALUNA, SUBLIMATION , and CLICK.

I came up with nothing, although had I not rushed through the questions, I might have attached the crescent-like shape to the moon and then translated to luna, then figure half a luna, but I didn’t.

Against all odds, I have good days from time to time, enough to have pushed me up into a danged smart rundle where I am pulped like a ripe orange.  I do not fear relegation as water and puzzlers find their own true level, but it occurs to me that as one of those called, “The bulge in the python”, a baby boomer, I could devise questions that might challenge and amuse others of my generation. The usual sets of questions are neither puzzling nor evocative as everyone recognizes the original Mouskateers, Howdy Doody’s nemesis, and the Cisco Kid’s horse. My forceful but inaccurate hunt-and-peck typing a moment ago mistakenly produced the Costco Kid then the Crisco Kid, both heroes who deserve to be fleshed out, but that’s a pleasant diversion for another day.

Following the Learned League’s format, I present six questions which only those with a keen sense of recent (?) history will be able to answer. Thorsten A. Integrity asks me to swear that I have not cheated as I enter my answers. In this case, however, use whatever it takes to see if you can glom on to these blurred reflections of a decade now way back in the rear view mirror.

  1. A 1995 semi-factual biopic presented John Turturro as gangster Sam Giancana, boyfriend of one of a trio of singers. Influenced by the Andrews Sisters, this trio appeared frequently on programs hosted by Milton Berle, Perry Como, and Andy Williams. We sincerely hope you can come up with the name of any one of these three singers.
  2. Speaking of gangsters, this bodyguard worked for Mickey Cohen and the Cohen crime family. Frank Sinatra asked Cohen to keep this lothario away from Ava Gardner, but Cohen reportedly rebuffed Sinatra, reminding him that he never,”…got between men and their broads.” He was in an abusive relationship with Lana Turner, whose daughter stabbed him to death. What was the name of this love magnet?
  3. After World War II, the Swanson brothers expanded their line of frozen dinners, giving their products a distinctive and entirely appropriate brand name.  What was the name of Swanson’s brand?
  4. In 1956, the first television show to be hosted by an African-American was broadcast by NBC. A musician and actor, this talented performer was only 45 when he died, but is featured on a Grammy winning recording produced 26 years after his death.
  5. “That’s the $64,000.00 question!” The reference to the tv game show indicated an answer worth a lot of money. Taking inflation into account, the top prize of $64,000.00 is the equivalent of 640,000 today, a hefty prize from 1955 to 1958. The second big winner was a female psychologist and an expert of boxing. She went on to appear more than 90 times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson offering advice and accounts of current social mores.
  6. What frequently televised sport presented Dick Hutton, Buddy Rogers, Enrique Torrez, and Eduard Carpentier?

*Answers presented at the end of the article.

Hey there, Hi there, Ho there, are you as welcome as can be?

There is a peculiar satisfaction in dredging shards of memory from the recesses of the mind. Those of us who were devastated by the recent death of Alex Trebek may have a tough time coming up with answers in the form of questions for a while, but when (if) we return to Jeopardy, there will be answers outside of our experience and expertise. I’m ok on The Bible, for example, but World Geography and current Pop Stars are big trouble. In the same fashion, those of you not enjoying your seventh decade will find many of these questions annoyingly obscure.

Next time I’ll put up fragments of advertising jungles to see how many out there can complete the pitch. Examples?

1.“Who was the first to conquer space? It’s incontrovertible. The first to conquer living space is __________”

2.“________, the gals’ll all pursue ya. They love to run their fingers through your ____”

3.“Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks, tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox, love _______s, …”

4.“Ask any mermaid you happen to see ___?”

5.“Mommy puts it in my drink for extra energy.  ______ gives me iron and sunshine vitamin D.”

6.“Charlie says, Love my ____________.  Charlie says, Really rings my bell.”

And a bonus question!

“My dog’s better than your dog. My dog’s better than yours. My dog’s better ‘cause he gets _________.”

Answers:

  1. Any of the McGuire Sisters – Christine, Dorothy, or Phyllis
  2. Johnny Stompanato
  3. TV Dinners
  4. Nat King Cole
  5. Dr. Joyce Brothers
  6. Professional Wrestling

Jingles:

1.Castro Convertibles

2.Brylcreem

3.Armour Hot Dogs

4.Chicken of the Sea Tuna

5.Bosco

6.Good and Plenty

BONUS Ken-L Ration dog food

Box-By-Box

Box-By-Box

I’d like to report that I have been fully present and entirely mindful throughout the course of a lifetime, that my progress is a journey well mapped with boundaries clearly defined and the best route given traffic and construction followed assiduously, turn by turn . At this late stage, however, let’s toss out the map idea and move instead to a kaleidoscope; it’s colorful, slightly jagged at the edges, lacking definition, and, honestly, not that much fun to look at for more than a few moments.

This retro-fragmented vision pulses more quickly this week as we follow through on our decision to pack up and move one more time. Leaving aside the existential paralysis that accompanies any major decision, I’m in the box-by-box stage of assessing what goes and what goes away, a process that calls into question every purchase I’ve made over the last half-century. The pain is not in letting things go; I’m ready to pare down and simplify. The issue is WHERE things go.

I’ve uncovered some junk and broken things. Heave ho and another trip to the landfill. No looking back. On the other hand, I’m also looking at the accumulated detritus of my life, some of which has value, I’m now convinced, only to me. I’ve moved two crates of my kids’ pre-school art work across the country, stored them in three subsequent moves, and now understand that the archives have to be thinned with steely resolve; only the finest work is to be curated and passed on to the adult children. Similarly, of the thousands of action figures only those still retaining heads and most body parts go into the box to be passed to the next generation. Why I find ten headless Barbies is a question I choose to leave unattended. American Girl dolls – saved. Faded Care Bear? The first sweep was brutal but I find myself able to function quite nicely without the tuxedos I never wore. Did I donate the books I did not read in my college career? I did, and Huzinga’s Homo Ludens, a book I’ve intended to finish for a half-century, is no longer sitting in mute accusation on my shelves. My hope, of course, is that it will go to a good home after the library’s used book sale, but I’ve resigned myself to the possibility that it may end up as confetti, and that’s ok. Really.

This cut is more challenging and with each decision I am confronted by information about myself that arrives unbidden and unwelcome. Ann Lamott reminded us that the seemingly impossible task of counting innumerable birds takes place bird by bird. I might be able to manage birds, but there are no decisions to be made as they fly by. 

One level of attachment might appear to be purely sentimental. My kitchen cupboards were filled with bowls, pans, mismatched flatware, tiny silver plated salt shakers, and small ornate spears that are intended to be used in separating the meat of the walnut from its shell. It all came from my childhood home, and for a moment I felt I was recycling both my childhood and memories of my mother as I packed the spears in bags and took them to the Hospice Boutique where I knew all things silver plated are melted down for cash. 

Today’s paralysis includes three objects that combine sentimentality with unresolved emotional puzzles. At first glance (which is where I should have stopped), easy decisions. I’m looking at an unopened gift wrapped box that has been shelved for seven years, an object defying categorization that came from my former mother-in-law’s home in Michigan, and a cardboard box filled to the brim with copies of comic books about Archie Andrews, his pal, Jughead, and the various denizens of Riverdale.

The unopened box is a gift from a student who has now finished her career at Yale and has returned to Seoul where she was active in raising funds for victims of tuberculosis in North Korea. I don’t know what’s in the box. It’s beautifully wrapped. The card thanking me for kindness to her at Cate is still attached. Why have I not opened the package? It’s a tricky question, but I think I still feel attached to the many students I have loved in a long career of teaching. They’ve gone out into the wider world and made their way with varying degrees of success. Some are in touch; some are not. I remember them as they were, of course, chuckling as I read a message from a scamp I particularly admired from my days at Berkshire School. I guess he’s in his late fifties at this point, but to me is still the crafty seventeen year old finding loopholes in every rule and every crack in the school’s facade.  

The package is exceptionally well wrapped; the paper is still vibrant; it reminds me of a William Morris textile. Gorgeous. I don’t fear opening the box and finding a gift I don’t need or appreciate; it’s not that. In addition to the gratitude I feel to her and the others I one knew, there’s something about an unopened gift that carries me back to a time of wonder. As a boy, I was frantic in my anticipation of Christmas. That state of mind in which all things were possible has pretty much escaped me now. As an adolescent, the melancholy that followed Christmas was profound. Looking back at myself, I understand my habit of rewrapping the gifts I had been given so that I could open them again even as I recognize the folly of trying to recapture the delicious mystery they had represented only days earlier.

There’s probably more to be discovered in thinking about this gift, but for now, I’m just going to pad it with packing paper and take it with me to the next chapter.

I did enough research to find a name for the object sitting on the kitchen table. It’s a vintage  200-count suited poker chip set in a wooden carousel, protected by a leather cover. I have no idea how many chips or cards have survived the many moves from a small town in Michigan; it’s looking scruffy at this point, still taped shut from its first move. I’d use the term “shabby”, but that’s the word that describes my behavior in the years when that carousel first came into my possession. I don’t much like the person I was in those years, especially as I think of the generosity with which my former wife’s family welcomed me. My mother-in-law was an imperfect person as are we all, but she was funny, and vulnerable, and loyal, and kind. This poker set was hers; we played cards in her dining room, a safe place for me to be silly and at ease. She was a remarkable grandmother and is an important part of my eldest son’s childhood. 

I walked away from that family, embarrassed and awkward, self-conscious and fearful. I regret much of what I was in those years, and particularly regret not thanking her. I did not step up in her last years, and I did not say goodbye.

So, that poker set reminds me of the good and the bad. I’d like to move out of complication, but the past is complicated and it is my past. I’ll ask my son if he wants the poker set. If he does, I’ll pass it on with gratitude; if he doesn’t, I’ll wrap it up in packing paper and add it to the growing pile of boxes in the garage. Still grateful.

Now, Archie. It’s worth examining why it should be more difficult for me to discard a Betty and Veronica Christmas Digest than an oversized Plastic Man retrospective or one of the many adventures of Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos. I’ve written elsewhere about my distress at the fictive death of Archie Andrews, an example of how quickly the very fabric of the universe can be ripped apart. I get it; time lumbers on. 

What is at stake in pitching a series of comic books that are frivolous at best and idiotic at their worst?

Once again, it is more complicated than I had imagined. I was a lumpy kid with no redeeming qualities that I could identify, stuck in a story that did not seem to have much to do with me. I dove into books, and magazines, and comics. The books fed some part of my imagination and gave me an appreciation of language. The magazines, The Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, and Reader’s Digest, seemed to promise entry into a wider world as an adult, although I understood I was not likely to appear on a jolly Norman Rockwell canvas. Most of the comics took me to alternate universes where cities such as Metropolis and Gotham were protected by superfolk; I thought superpowers were pretty nifty but knew they weren’t coming my way.

Riverdale, like Oz, seemed just around the corner, slightly more likely to have a place for someone like me. Oz could be a pretty terrifying place, with wicked witches and Princess Mombi’s collection of interchangeable heads. Riverdale was a sanctuary. Archie made a mess of things, but it never mattered very much. He had friends who stood by him and rivals who never brought rack and ruin. Betty and Veronica were two sides of the same coin, one salt of the earth, the other pampered debutante, both competing for the affection of freckled, goofy, feckless Archie Andrews. Nobody flunked out of Riverdale High; everybody made the varsity teams. The Malt shop was always open, and parents stayed pretty much out of the way, with the exception of Veronica’s father whose vast wealth allowed some stretch in terms of plot. 

I never saw myself as Archie Andrews, but I was pretty sure I could hang out with his gang. Theirs was a world suffused with acceptance and humor. The holiday editions were particularly restorative as snow fell softly, gifts were tied up in bows, and all misunderstandings resolved themselves before Santa arrived. I continued to buy those digests, assuring myself that they were for my kids who would love Archie as much as I had. Maybe they did, but I was the one who picked them up off the couch and put them in boxes to be savored again and again.

They sit in a cardboard packing box this morning. I’d like to pass them on to kids who would enjoy them, but thrift stores don’t take comics, and I can’t stand thinking of them in a landfill. They don’t take much space; my granddaughter might find them amusing. I seem to have reached the decision I’ve made with every move.

They’re coming with me.