My Baby, She Wrote Me A Letter

My Baby, She Wrote Me A Letter

Actually not my baby , or likely anyone else’s, a fiercely independent and highly intelligent friend from my boyhood/adolescence sent on a packet of letters I had written her more than fifty years ago.  She was my best friend’s girl, but one of the few people I trusted with my secrets, and so, I wrote her, more frequently than I had remembered;.

What I find in reading the letters, almost all of which were written when I was a junior in boarding school, is that I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a friend willing to endure an endless stream of self-absorbed flotsam, and that in retrospect, I was a person I don’t like very much.

I would describe that person as jejune-superficial, naive, clueless, with an appalling insensitivity to those about him.  It seems I was also thoroughly deluded in my conviction that my letters bubbled with wit and wisdom.  The letters are abominably smarmy and self-congratulatory, and, worst of all, fatuous.  I fancied myself something of a writer but writhe now as I read my clumsy attempts to imitate the writers I admired.

Bouts of writhing arrive fairly frequently as I catch myself being myself, particularly as I  veer into grandiosity, but fortunately I experience the full-body writhe only intermittently.  I often think of a little known film, Defending Your Life, which presented Albert Brooks as a fussy, fearful advertising man killed in a car crash, stuck in Judgment City until his life has been evaluated by looking at video footage of his behavior on earth.  Now that is writhe-worthy.  Happily, footage of my life is unavailable for distribution and I am spared much evidence of my foibles and failures.

When such evidence does arrive, as it did with those letters, after the writhing has subsided, I have a chance to see myself, perhaps not exactly as others see me, but with some approximation of accuracy.  It’s not always pretty, hardly ever without some regret, but in that moment I’m given an opportunity to re-size myself, change my perspective, and fish around in the slag heap of my rarely used attributes to find a sense of humor about my inflated sense of self-importance.

OK, Humor.  Check.  This is the necessary step in moving beyond fascination with my own past to the better and more transformative appreciation of kindnesses done me by a host of folks who had lives of their own to patch together.  I am not sure where gratitude goes when it slips away, but I know that my operating system starts to run rough without it.  In my experience, there is an interesting and unexpected inversion in the gratitude self-pity formula.  Whereas it is commonly believed that we can easily absorb a thousand compliments but dissolve when encountering a single criticism, I find that the grumbleverse has little hold on me if I can muster even shards of gratitude.

My son’s middle school had a motto worth repeating.  “When in doubt, go with gratitude.”

So, I look at that pack of letters, consider the care and effort it took to read them, respond to them, save them for a half-century, and return them to me with a kind note reminding me of our friendship, and I am nudged, once again, into grateful appreciation of the people who have been so generous in their kindness to me.  Unlike self-pity, which goes nowhere, gratitude not only provides perspective but also jump-starts my resolution to pay it forward.  While I still have a reasonable idea of my place in the universe, it makes sense for me to lend a hand when I can.

It will seem I digress, but I do have a point yet to express as I remember a documentary recently aired as part of a public television fund-raising marathon.  It’s You I Like is a tribute to Fred Rogers, an authentically kind and decent man with a rare capacity for honesty and courage and an appreciation of children as children that we will likely not see again.  Any of his observations are best heard in his own voice, of course, but I’ll pass one along as the coda of this piece:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I’m grateful to the helpers.  Even in scary times, they are all about us.  I’m feeling grateful today.  Maybe I’ll have a chance to be a helper.


It is never too late to do better

It is never too late to do better

I can’t count the number of times I have heard people say, “I just want to live without any regrets”, which is a pretty tall order, given that most of us inevitably chunk up from time to time, missing a chance to be kind, taking a shortcut that injures someone else, maybe even doing things we had vowed we would never do.  Memory of those things done which we ought not to have done and those undone we ought to have done can weigh heavily upon us at times, and regret usually creeps in, often unacknowledged and always unwelcome.

Regret does not feel great, particularly if it’s the sort of regret that is tinged with shame.  It’s one thing to wish I had invested in Microsoft and another to remember acting selfishly or dishonestly.  Leaving my wallet in the men’s room makes me feel stupid ; not visiting a dying friend makes me feel worthless.  There could be a thousand reasons for having made the wrong choice, and I am inclined to find any one of them which allows me to tuck that regret away, out of sight and seemingly out of mind.  Apparently, however, my mind is a stickier place than I might wish.

It’s troubling; not only does justification and self-deception take a lot of energy from virtually every interaction we have with the world in the present, it doesn’t attend to that feeling of worthlessness or shame that kicked off the whole process in the first place.  I’m going to skip a couple of steps here in the interest of getting somewhere.  Moving beyond regret requires moving into regret just long enough to see things for what they were, acknowledge our part with as much honesty as we can bear, and then do something that does have worth.

It’s easy to say that all we need to do is to get honest and act as honest people do; I guess if it were easy, we’d all do it all the time.  Getting to honesty is necessary in order to move on, and although that’s an important issue in its own right, I’m moving on to regret.

The best advice I ever got came from my wife on a night when I had chunked up most spectacularly.  Her advice to me was succinct:  “Just don’t make it worse.”  It was necessary advice because shame feels really crummy and my first impulse is to do SOMETHING, anything,  to obscure the reality of the situation.  When we have made a mess, it is necessary to take action, but first we have to stop making a mess.  We don’t have to find a different mess; we have to look at the mess we’ve made and change our behavior.

And then?  The past being past, there’s a great deal we can’t undo.  We said what we said; we did what we did.  The suggestion that it’s not too late to do better is essentially a way of paying backward by paying forward.  We work to find a second chance, a do-over.  Not absolution or a free pass.  No, I’m suggesting circling back and taking a second swipe, trying a better, kinder behavior than the one we’ve come to regret, taking the time to attend to a task we had chosen to avoid. We can’t change yesterday, but there is the outside possibility that we can do something about today.

Rather than dropping into a litany of things I deeply regret, I’ll use a relatively benign regret as an example: For years I considered an annual retreat and dinner with colleagues one of the great afflictions pressed upon me by an uncaring universe.  I worked with these people every day; I knew their foibles all too well and had heard their disjointed and indefensible opinions for years.  The event promised nothing but pain, and, being an equal opportunity curmudgeon, I growled to my wife in advance of dinner, pouted and isolated myself during dinner, and then subjected my wife to higher grade growling when we got home.  Grrrr.  Life is rotten, etc.

Year after year, I dreaded the evening, and I had also come to not like myself very much as the glum growling guy in the corner.  I didn’t want to be resentful and cranky; I had to do something.  Jumping to the unlikely insight that I might have something to do with the quality of my experience of other people and regret my small-minded and unnecessarily alienating behavior, I decided I had better act like a grown-up, if only to see if it made a difference.  Against all odds, I determined to change my behavior and my attitude.  My attitude, unfortunately, lags behind my behavior.  I pretty much have to act as if I am a better person in order to start thinking like a better person.  Yeah, attitude lags behind a bit.

Good thing I had the opportunity to grab a do-over.  Annual retreat and dinner arrived again, that being the way of annual things.

Instead of trying to sit as far from conversation as I could, I plunked down between two colleagues to whom I had not shown much respect.  I was determined to make the evening as pleasant as possible for them.  I took the obvious (to a grown-up)  path; I asked them about themselves.  I listened to what they said and asked follow-up questions that allowed them to speak in greater detail about the fabric of their lives.  I asked and asked and asked until I found myself authentically engaged in the stories they told.  We have not become best friends, but I identified with many of the challenges and triumphs in their lives and saw them as people rather than tedious annoyances.

Oh, and I had a great time and came home happy, eager to tell my wife how much I had learned in the few hours I’d had with folks we’d know for a long time.  I hadn’t made things worse, I hadn’t stacked up a new pile of grievances, I’d practiced being a better person than I had been.

Not only did I feel much better, I learned that it is a gift to try to see a person and to hear the story they have lived.  Huh.  People can be interesting if you give yourself a chance to see them; what a concept!   As do-overs go, it was a very manageable task.  My experience is probably not much of a guide as opportunities to find do-overs pop up at alarming rate for me, a function of all those things left undone, I guess.  But still, I can summon patience in the check-out line at Target if I can imagine that the person in front of me probably also has a life to get to , I can summon kindness when giving up a parking space if I can assume that I’m not only one in a hurry, and I can even summon appreciation when unearned gifts come my way if I can imagine that someone has taken the time to think of me.

Grown up?  Not yet, but coming closer, one do-over at a time.




I’m writing today about women’s basketball, and you know that because “UConn”,  the title of the piece, now brings to mind women’s basketball, but the remarkable accomplishment of a team from a relatively small and absolutely unheralded Northeastern university speaks to more than the Huskies’ dominance in the sport.  Most recent conversation about UConn has been about the danger of a single team’s prominence and its stranglehold on the national championship, even though a feisty Mississippi State team knocked UConn out in the Final Four last season, an anomaly that did not silence the debate.

“Is UConn bad for women’s basketball”?  Back and forth like a series of turnovers at midcourt.

Here’s the thing:  If you have to ask the question, the answer is there wouldn’t be a conversation about women’s basketball without UConn’s transcendent legacy.

Have women’s collegiate sports come of age, particularly since the implementation of Title IX?  Absolutely?  Are women’s sporting events as well attended as men’s?  Not usually, or almost never with a few significant exceptions.  US National Women’s Soccer game tickets may be hard to come by, and final matches at the US Tennis Open are up by more than 30% as more than 690,000 attended in person, in part because American women in addition to the Williams sisters have moved up the ranks.  The highest attendance of any US women’s professional team belongs to the Portland Thorns FC of the NWSL who have averaged about 13,000 per game and a high of 17,653 last season.  In the WNBA, the highest numbers showed up for the 2000 All Star game in Phoenix (17,717) and for the final game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream(15,258).

At the collegiate level, the University of Utah Gymnastic team leads the pack with an average attendance of 15,000, although as many as 15,600 packed into an arena with a capacity of 15,000 to see the Red Rocks take on the Bruins of UCLA.  The next contender is also a gymnastic program, at the University of Alabama, averaging more than 13,000 per game.  Where’s UConn’s women’s basketball program?  Behind South Carolina, Tennessee, and Iowa State.

So, bad for women’s basketball?  Apparently not, and here’s the argument that carries the most weight.  Although there may not be parity in women’s basketball, and although UConn blows out teams like St, Francis in the first round of the tournament by a score of 140 – 52, leading the St. Francis Red Flash by 94 – 31 in the first half, every televised slamma-jamma-fast break- three point-outlet pass victory brings more viewers to the sport, more attention to the game, and more intensity to the coaching and training of female high school and collegiate basketball players.

Tennessee held the crown for decades.  Coached by Pat Summitt, one of the toughest and most revered coaches in any collegiate sport, the Lady Vols have appeared in all 36 tournaments, 34 Sweet Sixteens, and 18 Final Fours.  In 1988-99, a year in which they won a National Championship, the Lady Vols went 35-2.  Other programs, Baylor, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Stanford, Notre Dame have risen to join Tennessee as contending programs in any year, and any of them could conceivably beat UConn as Mississippi State did last year.

But UConn’s women hold the top two longest winning streaks in collegiate basketball, winning 111 consecutive games from 2014 to 2017 (buzzer beater loss to Mississippi State) and a streak of 90 games from 2008 to 2010.

111 consecutive games.  What talented young woman would not want to be a part of that dynasty?

Coach Gino Auriemma arrived in Storrs, Connecticut in 1985.  I grew up in Connecticut, and I can find Storrs on a map, but I would bet that most of my readers would need some help to pinpoint the Mecca of women’s collegiate basketball.  Storrs is a sleepy town in the agricultural northeast of the state with a population of about 15,000, and UConn was one of the New England state universities that enjoyed brief flashes of celebrity as one of the men’s basketball teams bounced out of the American Conference and into the limelight.  Julius Erving took the University of Massachusetts to prominence at the end of the 1960’s, and John Calipari and Marcus Canby resuscitated the program in the early 1990’s.  It was UConn’s men who first brought attention to the university winning the NCAA championship in 1999, but by 1995, the women had climbed to the top as well, defeating a Pat Summitt coached Tennessee team with the help of Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, Jennifer Rizzotti, Nykesha Sales, and Jamelle Elliott.  The strength of both programs allowed UConn to become the only college to sweep the tournament with both men’s and women’s teams, in 2004 and 2014.  The men rank sixth all-time in NCAA tournament success, but few of us mark the calendar to watch them play.  Even fewer tune in the hope of seeing them lose.

And that’s where I think the UConn women’s team has had a salubrious effect on the quality of the game as a whole.  They face some strong competition during the season of course, but for every other team, the UConn game is THE game of the season.  Not only does UConn make regular season basketball compelling (and few teams do), they push every opponent to the highest level of their game.  The game is elevated, the stakes are high, and the sport becomes a topic of conversation as is true of no other women’s sport.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, UConn plays superb team basketball.  They shoot threes with the best of the best, but also speed in transition, steal a lot of balls, find the open player, grab rebounds, play killer defense, and never stop scrapping.  They play an elegant, furious version of basketball that reminds me why I love the sport.

Last season’s team had lost outstanding players, played younger, and had to scrap a bit harder.  The loss to Mississippi State ended the streak, but pushed both Mississippi State and South Carolina into greater public attention and brought heightened drama to the current season.  In regular play, the Huskies were 16-0 in conference this year and 19-0 against teams outside the conference.  Maybe not all that much drama.

They face South Carolina tomorrow and, should they move along, either Mississippi State or UCLA in the final game.  I watch golf when Tiger plays and I watch basketball when UConn plays.  I’m hoping they keep this streak alive, race to the finish and play basketball as basketball was meant to be played.

Go, Huskies!

Waiting … Waiting

Waiting … Waiting

To set the scene – this is the waiting room in our local hospital’s imaging center, the place where women undergo Sonography, 3D Digital Mammography, Computer Aided Detection, and Stereotactic Breast Biopsies.  It is a clean, well lighted place; the chairs are reasonably comfortable, and the decor is unremarkable.  Women of an age come and go, checking in, sitting for a few moments, rising quickly when called.  Most are alone.  My wife was scheduled for a host of tests, some of which could indicate a need for more invasive testing, so I wanted to be on hand, just in case.  The very good news is that at the end of the morning, my wife emerged with a great report card, off the watch list for another year, and ready to celebrate with a pancake breakfast.  Good news, much relief, and an entirely successful four hours very well spent.

The only glitch was that I had forgotten to bring my computer or my Kindle, so for those  few moderately anxious hours I worked my way through the center’s magazines, moving from stack to stack as seats emptied and the next pile became available.

About an hour into the magazine maelstrom, it occurred to me that someone deep in the bowels of the administrative wing of the huge medical center of which this office is but a tiny adjunct must had invested a fair amount of time in selecting these subscriptions. These were freshly published magazines, not cast-offs. not rumpled, coffee stained shards of magazines from which recipes has been torn; these were current, obviously curated and kept up-to-date.  And there were a lot of them.

Sure, some were the celebrity stalking, quasi fashion magazines I regularly see in the check-out line.  I have learned to be grateful for the chance to scan covers, moving from the hard-to-reach  at the top of the racks (People, Oprah) to the in-my-face middle ranks  (US, In Style, and my favorite, OK).  Thanks to OK I know that “Meghan’s Baby Is On The Way … Already!”, and I find out that Leah escaped from Scientology.  I have to admit that I’m not on a first name basis with celebrities, but I’m happy for Leah. Thanks to People, I can join mainstream conversations about the Bachelor Betrayal – “I made  huge mistake … I had to take a risk”.   The lines are long, the wait interminable, nothing’s moving, and I can take the time to check in on cultural trends about which I would know nothing. It could be so much worse as the nation’s most widely circulated magazines do not show up next to the impulse buying candy rack and would not so generously broaden my cultural horizons.  The top three, AARP The Magazine, AARP Bulletin, and Costco Connection may one day perch above the Paydays and Peanut Butter Cups, but even an aging America may not be ready yet.

It’s not surprising to find some of these in a medical waiting room: People, Good Housekeeping, Home and Garden, US, Family Circle, Golf Digest, Sports Illustrated.  Not surprising, but perhaps foolhardy as doctors’ offices lose something like sixty million dollars in stolen (ok, “borrowed”) magazines a year, particularly those that are gossip, fashion, or sports related.  Apparently Forbes, the Economist, and Smithsonian live to see another week or month on the table.

The office in which I wait, however, has certainly anticipated light-fingered chicanery in the waiting room.  Here are the magazines I had before me after looking at an old Sports Illustrated, the two most recent copies of US and InStyle, Golf Digest, a National Geographic, and WebMD:

TV Guide, Sunset, Vanity Fair, Birds and Blooms, This Old House, Food and Wine, Architectural Digest, Private Islands, Breathe Magazine, Scootering – A Way of Life Since 1985, Yoga Magazine, Yachting, Men’s Journal, Motor Home Magazine, Classic Car, and Ranger Rick.

Ranger Rick is a racoon and a heck of a park ranger as any loyal reader knows from following “Ranger Rick’s Adventures”, an ongoing account of Rick’s attempts to teach a clueless world to face contemporary environmental issues.  Since one of my kids dressed as Ranger Rick on his sixth Halloween, Rick is an old friend, and it was good to catch up with him.  It did not take me long, however, to cover most of the ground in recycling Christmas trees, so on to the next available journal, in my case, TV Guide.  There are articles in TV Guide (“Does Jason Bateman listen to Sandy Duncan?  Of course not!”), but the bulk of the publication is the daily schedule of television shows available that week, information more useful in almost any other setting.  Reading a dated TV Guide is like reading last year’s calendar.   Moving on.

I glumly leafed through the magazines obviously meant for the one percent not idly waiting anywhere for four hours at a stretch, Vanity Fair, Private Islands, Architectural Digest, and Yachting, fairly certain that I was not in the market for an island or a yacht, although it was clear that the Okean 50 truly was a Brazilian beauty and nine stunning islands are still for sale in Canada – Go Figure.   Vanity Fair used to fascinate me, in a face pressed up against a window outside the Knickerbocker Club in New York kind of way, but the current iteration is a high fashion version of the celebrity fan mag crossed with some biting cultural controversy.  The cover of December’s edition featured J-Lo and A-Rod in evening wear (their secret is their willingness to share vulnerability), but articles by Michael Lewis on the U.S.D.A and an interview with a mourning Joe Biden convinced me to take a look at past issues when I had a chance.  Architectural Digest  trotted out a Mid-Century inspired design, a country cottage, and a house in the Hamptons as usual, any one of which installed faucets that cost more than I made in my best year.

By the time my wife emerged, I was overwhelmed by the range and scope of the magazines in this space, a generous array, but a tiny segment of a publishing industry that I had assumed devastated by social media, smart phones, and digital gossip.  There are more than seven thousand magazines published each year in the US, most of which I had never seen much less read.  Have I raced out to pick up the latest copy of Soft Dolls and Animals?  I have not.  On the other hand, I have now checked out Supermarket News to see just how much I don’t know about how magazines play a part in the complex world of supermarket management. Overwhelming!

Next time I’m bringing my Kindle.









The First Two Hundred Are the Hardest

The First Two Hundred Are the Hardest

Needing discipline and a sense of purpose, I determined that I would write a thousand words a day in this eerily comfy phase of retirement.  The Cogitator was born of that resolution when the several thousands of words I had written and sent out to newspapers and magazines were returned to me with varying degrees of encouragement.  By encouragement I mean not told to cease and desist.


Here I am almost two years later having posted two hundred articles, all of which continue to amuse me, demonstrating a confirmed absence of critical discrimination.  In an attempt to acknowledge the sheer volume of inefficacious cogitation, and admitting that a little quality control might be a good thing, I present representative passages,  reasonably random, excerpted from the first four months.  All two hundred articles are listed by month below the list of recently published articles should you wish to see what happened next.

September 22, 2016 – Not Ready to Say Goodnight

… As a pup and as a young dog, Jinx was, well, needy.  She came by it honestly; her mother was a relentless love hound.  Whereas our lumpy blue merle simply lays his wide head on my knee and looks up imploringly, Jinx is a nudger.  She’ll butt my hand until I relent, no matter what I happen to be doing or carrying.

She does that a little less these days, though she does love to have her snout rubbed gently.

She sleeps hard.  At night she’s up on the bed, although she needs help in getting on board; it’s hard on her when she has to get down in the middle of the night and can’t pull herself back up.  During the day, she finds a patch of sun, often on the porch outside the den.  The door to the kitchen is around the corner, and the other dogs find their way there quickly when called.  Jinx doesn’t hear us, or she’s too deeply asleep.  She rouses when we step outside, yell around the corner, and clap loudly.

I’m happier when I can see Jinx.  On the few occasions when she has wandered off into the pasture or the orchard without the rest of the gang, I’ve had to go looking when the yelling and clapping has failed.  I don’t realize I’ve been holding my breath until I find her lying near the pear trees.

I’m not ready; it all comes down to that.  I still grieve the dogs we’ve lost, each one with a particular pain.  Some of them slowed, weakened, lingered, and gave out.  One died in my daughter’s arm; one died in mine.  Two died too soon.

I know that my thread is as likely to fray as Jinx’s, and we each have whatever days we have.  I find as many ways as I can to honor her each day and try to slow myself down as I rub the velvet fur above her eyebrows.  She closes her eyes and takes a long slow breath.  So do I. I say goodnight and stroke her head slowly as I leave her.

Please, not tonight.

September 23, 2016 – Pears

… The last of the really good pears dropped last night.

Over the last few weeks I have gone into the orchard early each morning with the dogs; the idea was that they could romp, fetch, and do canine stuff, while I gathered the morning’s shakedown.  My mistake was in thinking pears would be of little interest to large healthy border collies.  They have discovered , however, that these pears are more than satisfactory as a morning snack.

I’m a quick study; I worked out a set of distractions to keep them at bay while I scoop up the best, leaving the bruised ones on the ground for enterprising hounds.  I head out with my collecting bag in one hand and their favorite toy in the other.  The two youngest have lots of competitive energy and race away when I toss the thing as far as I can.  The oldest dog lumbers behind, unlikely to win the chase unless the two bouncier dog knock the thing sideways, into her paws.  Our most ambitious eater gives me a grudging step or two then turns to snuffling up the fattest pear under the tree.

I’ve been able to cram as many as twenty pears into the bag before all four dogs assemble back at the tree.  The greenest of the large pears will go in the fridge; I’ll split a few of the overly ripe ones with the eager quartet and take the rest to town where I’ll meet with a group of friends.  I can’t give away zucchini or squash, but the pears are welcomed.  One wag likes to say I’ve come pre-peared or re-peared; brevity may be the soul of wit, but even brevity doesn’t offer much comfort after a week or so of that.

Our pears are Williams pears, also known as Bartlett pears.  I won’t go into the details of the story by which Enoch Bartlett named the variety after himself, even though he had harvested pears brought from England, known there as Williams Good Christian pears. The description of the Williams pear on the USA Pears website will suffice in allowing the reader to recognize the variety in any display:

“The pear exhibits a pyriform “pear shape,” with a rounded bell on the bottom half of the fruit, and then a definite shoulder with a smaller neck or stem end.  Williams are aromatic pears, and have what many consider the definitive “pear flavor”.”

Well and good, but what cannot be completely described is the difference between the pears found on a shelf, or, to be completely frank, in a cardboard box, and the pears I swipe from the dogs in the morning.  OK, they aren’t as symmetrically perfect as the commercial versions, and they are often a bit scarred from falling on the packed mulch.  Some are smaller, and some are huge; most are yellow, but a few fall green.

I haven’t taken any from the fridge yet; we have had a steady supply of new pears throughout the week.  I have four yellow pears on the window sill.  Actually three, as I am eating one now in order to bring the experience more clearly to mind.  I start with the neck, near the stem, often the most crisp area of the pear.  The perfect pear delivers a crunch in the first bite, then increasing sweetness and juice as the consumer gets close to the core.  Whereas I am not fond of the skin of the Royal Riviera, I much prefer eating our pears by hand, rarely slicing the skin away.  There is no rough or particulate aspect to the skin; it fuses with the flesh without bringing attention to itself.

Today is the first day of autumn, and most of the Riviera and Anjou pears have been harvested in the commercial orchards that surround us; the Bosc are still on the trees for a few more days.  We know the harvest is near when large crates are stacked at the edge of the orchards and twelve-foot ladders lean against the trees.

On the other hand, once you have pulled yellow Williams from the tree, the world never looks quite the same.  That is certainly true for our youngest dog, also the tallest.  I found him on his hind legs, yanking a beauty from the tree all by himself.  His taste is excellent; I had been waiting a week for that pear to ripen.

October 9, 2016 – Boom

… I am one of the seventy-six million babies born in the United States between 1946 and 1964, a Baby Boomer, the generation once called the pig in the python, the bulge in the snake, not the first generation to be tagged as a generation, as the “Lost Generation” and the “Silent Generation” preceded us, but perhaps the first generation to be aware of ourselves as a generation.  It was relatively late in our generational journey that our parents’ generation, the “Greatest Generation” received their due, when Tom Brokaw wrote of them as the generation that fought, not for fame or recognition, but because it was the right thing to do.  I’m fairly certain that my parents did not consider themselves part of a great generation, the greatest generation.  From what I could gather, both the Depression and the war were hellish, and they did what they did because there were no alternatives to hanging on, making do, and living in a constant state of flux.  They shared the circumstances of their time, but in truth they were as poorly described by generational characteristics as were to be.

One Great Generation, one Lost, one Silent, and one … what?  A boom?  A bulge?

To be candid, we are also the “Me Generation”, privileged as other generations had not been, raised in post-war affluence with a sense of our generational superiority to the sleepy repressed stiffs littering the world and workplace, keenly aware of ourselves as the new generation.  Thus, the “generation gap” emerging at the end of the 1960’s as we believed ourselves the champions of social awareness and humanitarian progress battling the useless vestiges of antiquated, social conventions and convictions.

We watched Howdy Doody,  wore coonskin hats, listened to The Witch Doctor, watched The Mickey Mouse Club. bought hula hoops, watched Leave It To Beaver, ate sugary cereal, watched Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, ate TV dinners,, listened to Chubby Checker, watched The Flintstones, went to high school, waited to see if the Cuban Missile Crisis meant nuclear war, fooled around, watched American Bandstand, saw JFK die in Dallas, ate pop tarts, stole copies of Playboy, watched The Man From Uncle, listened to the Beatles, experimented with drugs, registered for the draft, marched and protested, watched Laugh-In, went to Canada, went to Viet Nam,   saw King and Kennedy die, went to Woodstock, saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, watched The Mod Squad, wore bell bottoms, listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, put flowers in our hair, listened to the Doors, became hippies or yuppies or Republicans or Democrats, got jobs, watched MASH, got married, had kids, got promoted, watched Charlie’s Angels, went to roller disco, lost jobs, watched Magnum P.I., got divorced,  watched the Cosby Show, got fat, lost hair, got old.

Looking back, we had a moment, somewhere between Watts and Detroit and Newark and Nixon’s resignation, when we might have made a difference.  For all of our pride in our highly evolved sensibilities and sensitivities, we became a lost generation ourselves,  a hedonistic, self-serving bulge, taking up space, distracted by pleasure.

We became the generation that did not recognize itself.  What happened, we wonder?  Weren’t we the generation that would change the world?

Look around.  I’m afraid we did.

We believed in progress, that every subsequent age would continue to flourish as ours had done, but we did not hold the opportunities given to us in trust for those who came next.  We liked the idea of an increasingly comfortable world so much that we wallowed in it without securing the future.  We knew the environment was fragile.  We knew natural resources were limited.  We knew that cities built in the desert would need water.  We knew garbage had to end up somewhere.  We knew people lived in poverty and violence.  We knew the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.  We knew we were distracting ourselves with mindless pleasures.  We knew that schools had become warehouses.  We knew that children went to bed hungry.

We made a lot of noise in the 1960’s, but what remains?  John Steinbeck wrote of the dignity shown by hard-working people of good will; the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the silence of the Silent Generation with words that took us to the mountain.  Where is our voice now?  We once heard Dylan, but now, perhaps hear Stephen King spinning dark tales of fun house world and stalking killer clowns.

We are perched now on a thin branch at the top of a tall tree.  The eldest of us are now seniors, seventy years old, retired, hoping that in these “golden” days, seventy-five is the new fifty.

I’m pretty sure it isn’t, but life isn’t over yet for many of us.  Maybe there’s time enough to circle back and put a few things right, plant a few trees to provide shade for children we will never know.  We’re outnumbered now, finally; Millennial are the current bulge, and our python is looking flatter with every passing year.

I’d sure like to see us go out as the next generation that did what we could, even at the end, because it was the right thing to do.


September 29, 2016 – Blackberries – Caught in a Bad Romance

… Oregon summers are hot, so I wore shorts to a picnic last week, thinking nothing of the marred flesh I exposed.  My host pointed to a leg asking what I had done to myself, fearing, I think, that self-mutilation had accompanied me into retirement.  Not understanding his concern, I shrugged uncertainly.  He pointed and said, “Looks like you got trapped with a bobcat in a phone booth.”

Close enough.

Blackberry vines grow overnight, while we sleep, curling and coiling, shooting green runners from otherwise innocent trees and shrubs, pushing their way into spaces I had thought unassailable.  Left unwatched, they join other tendrils, forming walls of thorn.  I had thought the forest of thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty was simply fairy tale exaggeration; not so.  If Beauty (that can’t be her name, can it?) stretched out anywhere on this property, she would be thorned in by sunset.

Yeah.  It’s impressive.

Ah, but it’s also testimony to the fact that we DO raise a crop here on this farm.  Yep, I manage acres of blackberry incursion on a daily basis.  Not farm enough for you?  Listen, Cows are milked twice a day.  Twice a day?  Hah!  I’m out there hours at a time, cutting back pulsing waves of blackberry vines. Why don’t I just plant them where I want them, you ask.  They plant themselves, and their roots descend to the what the agronomists at Oregon State (Go, Beavers!) call the layer below the rigid lithosphere, a zone of asphalt-like consistency called the Asthenosphere.

Asphalt like, and they sink in their botanical fangs so deep that mortal efforts cannot uproot them.

But, and this is the essential point, the blackberries themselves are delicious, decidedly more delicious than berries ordinary folks find at even the most rigorously fresh of fresh fruit stands.  We don’t have them for long; when we water the cultivated bushes in a warm summer such as the last few, we can expect the first really tasty berries to emerge in the final weeks of July.  By the end of August, we’re making do with berries that are less full and less sweet.

August 7, 2016 – Mr. Darcy’s Wet Shirt, Colin Firth, and the Revival of British Literature

… Moving from cool, almost caddish disdain to absolute devotion, Firth’s Darcy reached the pinnacle of fan frenzy in episode IV, in a scene not in the novel.  Darcy has literally jumped into a lake on his estate in order to cool his turbulent emotions with regard to Elizabeth Bennet, climbing out of the water only to find Elizabeth walking the estate’s grounds and approaching the lake.  Darcy is shaken and embarrassed, in a state of undress, charmingly awkward.  Many viewers, however, were impressed with Firth’s manly form in what a survey of British critics called, “the most memorable moment in British television history.” I will venture to say that there was considerably more buzz about “the shirt” than about Austen’s use of irony in Pride and Prejudice.

The final episode of the BBC series claimed 40% of the viewing public, and the first run of the double-video set sold out within the first two hours of its release.  The shirt was later placed on display in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. as part of an exhibition entitled, “Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity”.

I’m going to go out on a limb here; I credit Colin Firth with reanimating interest in Pride and Prejudice, the Austen novels, and English literature as a whole.

Too much?  I think not.

September 24, 2016 – Can’t Every Day be Halloween?

… Just because I have an inflatable vampire stored in the garage, just because the vampire is an Inflatable Tigger with fangs and a cape, just because it’s awesome, no need to drag it out this year.  We’re well off the beaten path; anyone who shows up in a mask on Halloween will end up doing ten-to-life in Folsom.  Passing cars can’t even see the house, much less the inflated Tiger.

Yeah.  So.  Tigger in a box.  Just sitting there, month after month.

It’s not just that he’s Tigger; he’s got a goofy not-very-menacing grin and a roguishly insouciant tousled cape.  And fangs. He’s inflated, but not heavy, so he wobbles in the best of circumstances and tips sideways when the wind blows, which actually makes him slightly disturbing, as he appears to be skulking, as much as anything large black and orange can skulk.

My wife is a breathtakingly levelheaded girl, to borrow a phrase from Salinger, possessing the quality I both admire and see as a necessary corrective to my own decidedly non-level decision-making.  She’s not wrong, (my daughter reminds me that’s not the same as saying she’s right) in thinking a tiger on the porch is unseemly in this country setting.  She’s also a breathtakingly compassionate girl, recognizing that I don’t handle the empty nest all that well around holidays, pretty much closing her eyes and ignoring the bobbing inflatable unless it bobs into her path, at which point she swats it aside without rancor.

Compromise is good, and I’m able to contain myself until the middle of October; that’s thoroughly reasonable.  On October 15, however, sunrise will reveal a tiger, once bitten, holding down the porch until all contending spirits have been laid to rest.


August 2019 Sangfroid, Schadenfreude, and Double Entendre

… As a reader of mannered British mysteries, many of which involve bright young men just down from Oxford, most of whom could not dress themselves without the assistant of a valet, I encountered a phrase that seemed to indicate an unwillingness to engage, or an inability to enter into a fray, or something.  Inexplicable but happily, the phrase turned up in a novel by Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling.

“With the alarm hors de combat, I turned my attention to the thick oak door, an hors of a different color.”

So, terrible pun aside, hors de combat is not simply broken or unavailable, but “out of the fight” with a suggestion that there is no question of cowardice or unwillingness on the part of the non-combatant. Unfortunately it also brings to mind – “Do you like Kipling?”  “I don’t know.  I’ve never Kippled.”

July 2, 2016 – Zen and the Art of Shaving

As a lad, I was taken with Burma Shave’s  tortured rhymes placed on billboards across the nation.  Actually, the doggerel verses were placed on small boards separated by some distance, so that the auto approaching them read the first line, then the second, then the third, and had to wait a bit for the fourth.

Shaving brushes

You’ll soon see ’em

On the shelf

In some Museum

Had to admire the wit and waggery, so used Burma Shave until I became environmentally awake, then scraped away with whatever soapy substance I could find at the local pharmacy…

I stumbled across the line of shaving creams produced by Taylor of Old Bond Street.  Jeremiah Taylor founded the company in 1854, during the reign of Queen Victoria, determined to reflect British understated style and  elegance. I took the plunge, ordering the Eton College Collection Gentleman’s Shaving Cream Bowl, first produced when Taylor of Bond Street became the official barber of Eton College.  The description of the substance was simply irresistible.

“A beautiful masculine fragrance with dominant citrus lemon notes combined with fruity citrus notes of orange and mandarin. All this is blended with gentle floral notes that rest on a base of warm patchouli. Contains Lemon oil and Patchouli oil.”

All true and the smoothest shave I had ever experienced, but was I satisfied?  No, not by a whisker!  A shaving cream this delicious demanded a far better brush than the hand-me-down I had found at the bottom of a bureau drawer.  Over the years, I found I preferred the Infinity Silvertex Shaving Brush by Kent.  Badgers breathe more easily as this is a synthetic bristle brush, which dries more handsomely than the badger brush, but I have learned that every face and every shaver is different.

Brush in place, Eton College cream almost done, I took a leap of faith and tried the rest of the Taylor line.  Again, each cream has a personality and each sends the shaver into the day with a different sort of embrace.  Eton College Cream is the heart of my shaving routine; I order it as the first in my rotation of three, substituting a few other favorites in turn.

July 23, 2016 – I’m In Here Somewhere … I think

… The who in question is the person lying awake, quaking in the hour of the wolf, remembering the shock that arrived when first gazing up at the stars, lazily mind-swimming in the view until, uninvited, the thought nudges the rim of consciousness –

These stars aren’t actually where I see them but off somewhere else, dancing in some other formation that someone else will see after I’m long gone.  This big picture makes my brain hurt. These stars will outlive me, but someday they’ll burn out and fizzle like fireworks in a fish pond.

Or something roughly like that.  And that set of brutal truths then bumps up against whatever psyche melting speculation has most recently playing at the Hometown Cinema 12, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, Abre los Ojos, any of the films or shows that seem to suggest that all we know exists only in our individual brain pan, and the entire structure of all that is (or isn’t) may be a subjective fiction.  I don’t know why the thought that I am dreaming myself, that my life is a lucid/fog-bound dream should be more terrifying than realizing that Russia, China, Pakistan, and North Korea all have nuclear weapons, or that the polar cap is now covered with tiki bars.

Well, it may pack a punch because it throws this whole “self” thing into question, shutting down just about the only set of certainties we thought we could count on.  How do we make our way through the day if we are uncertain that the day actually exists?

Let’s just put that inconvenient doubt aside for a bit because we still have to contend with how, and again, I’m less concerned with the how of Jupiter’s birth and more concerned with the how of sentience. How does it happen that we are aware of our own subjective experience?  I’m not asking why us (me) or why does sentience operate as part of our human experience; I’m asking how the complex electrochemical neurological spasms and spurts have anything to do with mentation.  I’m ok with all the mapping and prodding (talk about probes!) brain research has done in the last twenty years, the genetic signals and the trace minerals, but we’re still left not knowing what a thought is, where it originates, or why we know it as our own.  We can track down the flawed systems of sensation, processing, and expression when they break (phantom limbs, etc), but, like life itself, mentation is currently only indirectly observable.  Flashes of light and color indicate brain activity, pathways glow, lobes glow, proteins glow, but we can’t identify the how of any specific thought.

So, why?  Why has the universe bumping along on whatever spiral it has ahead included awareness of self?   Problem solving makes sense.  Kinesthetic awareness makes sense.  goose-flesh and body hair make sense.  Not sure what evolutionary advantage resides in intimations of mortality or (perhaps) intimations of reality.  It’s pretty clear that a bunch of life forms can learn to distinguish between the left turn and food and the right turn and a blast from the experimenter’s taser.  At that level, probably not even mentation.  I’m pretty sure planeria don ‘t think, even though they can be conditioned.  Biologists call their behavior “directional bias”, and I’m likely to keep that tag at the ready whenever my choices about anything are questioned.  Why do I prefer Michigan football to Alabama football?  Directional bias.

I’m perfectly comfortable lounging in the hypothetical, but real thinkers want more rigorous standards, so I’ll ask the question:  If the only purpose of sentience is primal (You exist as a person separate from all other life forms.  Tigers are a life force that would eat you as an appetizer.  Good idea to avoid tigers.), I can’t imagine (mentation  201) why we would spend the amount of time that we do in  our heads, as it were.  To take the issue one step farther, what’s the point of brain activity that often provokes those locked in self-awareness to do everything in their power to shut down the transmitter?  Drink, drug, exercise, gamble, shop until somehow the noise inside the head quiets; otherwise unchained humans experience incessant thought about self as being trapped in a kind of cacophonous pinball machine.

How did I get from the trip to Jupiter to unrelenting brain static?  I guess I wondered why a trip of more than 500 million miles is an easier trip than an idle visit to a fairly obvious human question.  Who, How, Why am I?

I’m inclined to exercise my directional bias toward mystery.  It may turn out that it is better not to know how we know, you know?

July 26, 2017 – Icharo

… I explained to my son that Ichiro was out of position, that he’d have no chance for balls hit just beyond the infield and would have a tough time trying to get off a satisfactory throw to any base but second.  As I spoke,  the leadoff batter for the Angels cracked a line drive over second base.  Ichiro somehow got to the ball on the first hop and rifled a throw to first in time to nail the runner.  I had seen Roberto Clemente’s arm on television, but I had never seen a throw such as that in person.  A frozen rope.

A few words about Ichiro as a hitter.  Everything about his stance and batting ritual is distinctive.  Most fans are aware of his stretching and squatting before he steps into the box; he takes sweeping practice swings as he steps in and then out of the batter’s box.  As he assumes his stance in the box, he twirls the bat in a giant arc, stopping the bat at the top of its second circle, tugging at his sleeve as his bat is effectively pointing at the pitcher. … And yet, what sets Ichiro apart in my mind is the ethos with which he approaches the game.  It’s hard to remember just how spectacular Ichiro was in that first season; 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, batting average of .350, Gold Glove, and the best arm in the game.  He was given the number 51 by the Mariners, and on learning that the number had belonged to Randy Johnson, a player Ichiro respected greatly, the rookie wrote a note to Johnson promising not to “bring shame” to the uniform.  Ichiro’s fielding was so effective that his corner of Safeco Field was called “Area 51”.  No shame in that.

Before facing the Red Sox’ s Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro famously announced, “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul.  I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.”  I think I knew he was an uncommon ballplayer when he refused to give the press the name of his pet dog, explaining that he didn’t have the dog’s permission to make the name public.


Confessions of a Gephyrophobe

Confessions of a Gephyrophobe

I had the dream again last night.

I’m in a car, a convertible, driving at high speed.  Where I am or where I am going is not important.  What is important is that I hit a ramp and start to climb.  I’m on bridge over water.  The pitch of this bridge is unspeakably steep.  It seems I am climbing straight up to a point at which the bridge disappears.  I will sail out and out and down.

I always wake at that point, gasping and choking.  Sailing from the end of the bridge is terrifying, but so too is the compulsion to yank the car to the left or right, bust through the puny guard rails, and send myself into the void before I reach the horizon.

I’m not fond of this dream, but it’s one from which I can awaken.  The actual driving over a bridge is a waking nightmare for me.  I do it, when I can find no other way to negotiate a trip, but the various stages of panic make the ordeal disquieting.  In the early stages I can see the sweep, the arc, of the bridge, and if I forget to look down, I can see the river or train tracks or highway below.  The setting is relatively unimportant, although bridges over wide spans of water tend to rise more precipitously and stretch for a longer distance than the relatively compact highway overpass.  I have to pull my vision back to the middle of the bridge.  As I gain height, I concentrate in seeing only a thin strip of roadway in front of me.  If I’m in the outside lane, I feel an obligation to slew into and over the guard rail; if I’m in the inner lane, there’s something seductive about the stream of oncoming traffic.

It never occurs to me to swerve into the oncoming lane in any other circumstance; I’m perfectly content to keep to my own space.  Perhaps other gephyrophobes have better language to describe what I experience as claustrophobia at high speed; it’s as if I am smothered by fear and can only break away by breaking away.  Sounds bad, you say, and I agree, but then traffic comes to a halt, and I am trapped mid-bridge, now compelled to look about me to assess the relative impact of my fall, stuck with thousands of pounds of automobiles on cantilevered concrete intended to bear the weight of far fewer standing cars.

“What?  Are you afraid of being blown off the bridge by a gust of wind?”  Yes.  “Are you afraid the bridge might collapse?” Duh. Of course I’m afraid of both those situations.  Who wouldn’t be?  Ask any number of intrepid bridge drivers, “How would you feel if this bridge collapsed?”  I doubt that many shrug and say, “Hey, it happens.”

Gephhyrophobia is described is an anxiety disorder, which is like saying that cannibalism is an eating disorder.  Anxiety is a cold chill down the spine; panic is all the air sucked out of the universe.  It’s not just bridges, although bridges always bring panic; I can feel the same powerful waves of fear on a boat in the middle of an expanse of water or looking out of the window in a tall building.  Doesn’t have to be that tall, actually.

What seems clear is that I am the living embodiment of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s oft repeated axiom, “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” which may or not be true for those facing real and immediate danger but is absolutely true for me in the midst of situations that are not threatening for most people.  I am overwhelmed with the fear that fear will prompt me to do the unthinkable, veer off the bridge, step off the building, jump into the ocean.

I don’t want to do any of these things; I don’t think about them until I am on a bridge, or near a window on the 50th floor, or looking at the horizon on a boat.  I absolutely understand a phobic response to sharp knives; I’m not afraid that I’ll stab myself, but I would get it if someone described their panic as they thought of doing just that.

Let’s get off the ledge for a minute and take a look at this fear of fear.  In my case, watching a movie in which a driver races across a long bridge is enough to make me swallow hard.  I’m ok, unless the director leaves the car and driver at the top of a swaying bridge, plugging in long shots from the bridge to water far, far below.  I’m suggestible and easily emotionally manipulated, but the bridge thing is more intense than the trapped in a submarine or diving airplane sequence, either of which should be about as nasty as conditions could be.

Suggestibility is another way of saying that I become fearful in the absence of an appropriately fearful stimulus; I’m afraid before I have reason to be afraid.  I’m suggesting a larger societal implication here, but the point to be made in advance of wider hypothesis is that my fear is not mitigated by reason or comforted by experience; I can’t be reassured out of panic.

To finish up with the bridge as metaphor, a nation may not be able to escape from undue anxiety until our feet are on the ground; there’s not much to talk about as we race out of control  trying to outrun fear.

Meanwhile, I’ve found a way to get to my destination without crossing a bridge.  It adds a half hour to the trip, but I’ll arrive chipper and unscarred, certainly worth a few extra minutes of back road navigation.  On my next holiday, will I be driving the hairpin four mile Megler Bridge from Astoria to Point Ellice, or the twenty-four mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, even though that bridge is not terribly high, or the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is two hundred feet above the water for more than four miles?

Sorry, can’t breathe.  Must stop.








Almost Book Friends

Almost Book Friends

“Mind if I sit here”

Two things strike me simultaneously:  We’re in a busy airport, flights have been delayed by snow and ice, few seats are open, and I can’t remember the last time anyone was courteous enough to ask.  And, in that same instant, I detect an accent, mildly central European, perhaps Israeli.  This could get complicated.

As he sits, my seat neighbor points to my shoes and asks, “You a runner?”  I’m not and explain that I’m not, without going into an explanation of my personal shopping creed, a set of convictions so rigid that I often buy and wear shoes and clothing somewhat at odds with my true persona.  Cheap but serviceable, in other words.  As I write, it strikes me that may, in fact, be my true persona, but to return to the moment at hand.

He’s brought his shoes, he says, but isn’t sure he’ll have time to run as he is heading to Medford for an intensive training seminar involving plastics and coatings.  I’m not sure that any sentence could have more surely prompted me to trot out some elaborate shuffling with the book I had been reading, but this guy is not to be shuffled off.

“I was in San Diego once, when my son finished boot camp, but this is the Northwest, huh?”

I nod and ask the question that had to be asked.

Newark, New Jersey,  he says, not a pretty place to live, he says, but affordable.  His son now lives in Arizona.  Yuma.  He and his wife might visit again, but not in the summer.

I agree that Yuma, Arizona in the summer would be hot, hellacious actually, but I keep that assessment to myself.   He points to my book and asks what I’m reading.  Ordinarily I would have been trying to mute my discomfort in flying by reading a fairly grisly potboiling tough guy police procedural, but I’d finally started George Saunders’ first novel and had found it irresistible.  Most casual conversations die quickly when literary fiction arrives as a topic, but not this time.

“I was a terrible student.  I don’t think we read anything, really, maybe some short stories.”  I might have nodded again and slumped back  into ostentatious reading, but it turns out that I am fascinated by what people read in school.  I confessed that I had been a teacher and asked him if he could recall any particular stories or collection, scanning my own memory of what might have been on the list in the late 1960’s , when I figured he might have been a high school freshman.  Maybe, “Paul’s Case” I thought, or a Steinbeck short story.

The names came quickly.  “Leiningen vs the ants”, “The Most Dangerous Game” He paused, then shrugged.  “I don’t remember the others.””

I do.  These were among the dozen stories contained in a remarkable collection, Great Tales of Action and Adventure, edited by George Bennett

Two copies of Great Tales of Action and Adventure are in my bookcase.  I bought both as used books from Powell’s.  I, too, read the stories in the ninth grade and can recall each in sharp detail.  Saki’s “The Interlopers”, still as unsettling as an extremely compact account of unexpected death at the paws of wild wolves could be.  I had been knocked out by Saki (H.H. Munro) and particularly taken with “Sredni Vashtar” and “The Open Window”, two stories with subtly surprising endings, a fondness for which unfortunately  crept into my own writing for the next decade, except for the subtle part.  “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Poe, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” by Conan Doyle, ” “August Heat” by W.F. Harvey.  That one was a corker.  It’s not exactly a ghost story, but I found it again in a DC comic, Secrets of Sinister House.

This guy read twelve of my favorite stories!

I have three or four “book friends”.  I’ve met some of them no more than twice, but we fell into conversation about books and bonded.  We don’t share the same tastes, exactly, but we take books seriously, which is not to say that we bond over serious books.  Anyone who has experienced the rhapsody with which technologically minded people can speak of the Logitech Wireless solar keyboard K750 for Mac will understand that there is a subset of humans who are book nerds, book geeks.  We know each other almost immediately as we respond to even the slightest reference to any of the books we have loved (immoderately loved, recklessly loved – see?) as a Great White Shark does to freshly slaughtered chum.  Our voices rise, we lean into the conversation, we grab pencil and paper to copy down recommended reading.

Great Tales of Action and Adventure was a gateway read for me.  It was presented as a text to be considered in class, thus a collection worth studying.  And these were not dusty classics; these were the sorts of stories I had been reading for pleasure.  A clunky ninth grade book nerd had been given permission to take seriously a book I loved from the start.  That may have been the moment when I saw that I could be a teacher.

“My wife never read at all.”  I am jerked back from “Sredni Vashtar” to find myself in  a conversation with a potential book friend, a person to whom I might recommend one of the books I love.  “She didn’t know about books.  But now we read to each other.”

They read Kidnapped to each other, then Treasure Island.  The Chronicles of Narnia had been a great hit, followed by the C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength).  “We tried to read his books on philosophy and religion, but we didn’t understand them.”  I am impressed by their willingness to follow an author into a challenging conversation, but before I can respond with some suggestions they might enjoy, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, he’s off again.

They’re reading L.L. Baum’s Oz books, now up to the fifth, which I recall is The Road to Oz, a strange, almost psychedelic, melange in which Dorothy Gale and the Shaggy Man, a disabled hobo, set out on an afternoon’s walk, meet two of Baum’s least engaging characters, Button Bright, a rich kid in a sailor suit, and Polychrome, the Rainbow’s daughter.  It’s all too precious until the gang arrives in Foxville.  Talking foxes are irresistible, and the chapter in Foxville almost saves the messy, Love Boat cast of faded characters brought out of retirement for a cameo appearance in this long wandering novel, but there’s no magic left in Baum’s Oz factory this time.

Baum was a racist, welcoming the extermination of Native Americans in a famous screed in which he describes Indians as “…a pack of whining curs who lick the hand of those that smite them.”  So, I’m not a fan even though I read the entire series as a kid.  I look over at my seat neighbor and decide we’ve made good use of our time waiting to board, but he will not be a book buddy.  I toss out a tentative recommendation, thinking they might enjoy reading The Golden Compass, but no pencil emerges, there’s no request for a piece of paper.

I can go for weeks without catching myself being myself, but as I wish my companion a good trip, I realize that before we had conversed, I had made up a story about him, based on his accent, his suit, his shoes.  I thought I was sitting next to a Willy Loman, a drab salesman pitching the plastic coatings in his line of coatings, liked but not well-liked. Perhaps that is his job, but at the end of the day, when he gets back from Medford, he’ll sit down with his wife and read The Emerald City of Oz to his wife, probably slowing down as they understand the crushing indebtedness facing the Gale family in the wake of the celebrated tornado’s churning through their farmstead.  They’ll talk about the characters, I guess, then go to bed, dreaming of the Gnome King and the plot to conqquer Oz.

I hope he reads better books along the way, but he is reading and enjoying reading.  I should have asked for his address. I have an extra copy of Great Tales of Action and Adventure; his wife might enjoy it.