The Metamorphosis

September 18, 2010

My body woke me from uneasy dreams this morning at 4:30. It pounced, like a cat wanting to be fed, with an little yowl and a flick of the tail to my face.

It took a while for me to realize that it had become detached during the night. Damn it. Again?

Like all tomcats, he’s unpredictable. Sometimes disappears with no warning. Insistent when he wants attention.

I got up.

These disconnects disconcert. I spent a lot of years cohabiting with this creature, often amicably, like housemates. I fed him, watched him hunt and chase his tail, studied his patterns. He used to sleep a lot. So did I. I rarely realized that he is me.

We grew distant. I fed him crappy food, kept him in the house. I slept more. He grew cranky and fat. He stared at invisible mice, tail idly thwapping the floor. Eventually he stopped even this and spent his day sleeping on my bedroom pillow. He became possessive of the pillow, only leaving it when he heard the sound of the can opener.

Lately we’ve reconciled. I suppose “conciled” would be more accurate. It’s not as if I’ve ever felt like he was part of me. We run together, we share meals, we even share the pillow. It’s an unusual man-cat relationship, I know. We’re a man-cat hybrid.

I chase my tail. He blogs about music and composes naughty song lyrics. I lie in the sun. He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson to me in a surprisingly deep voice. I love his taste in 19th century literature, and he’s impressed with my mice-tracking skills.

We’ve become a team.

That’s why finding him outside of me this morning was troubling. I got up and went to the kitchen to open a can of food for him, out of old habit. He wasn’t hungry. He kept yowling, more and more insistently, and rubbing against my legs in figures of eight. He seemed to be warning me of danger, as if he sensed an earthquake coming.

Finally, I got it. The rupture had already happened. He needed me to focus on him now and reconnect, not to sedate him with food. I realized I needed the same.

We busted out before dawn. We tramped down the mountain road until we hit the redwood grove, then slipped in. We walked along the trail, patches of starry sky scattered overhead among the gaps between the tree branches. I darted here and there, alert for the rustle of tiny creatures. He ambled along, marveling at the wonder of it all. We breathed. We squished the soft mat of redwood needles under our feet, and felt the gentle percussive snick-tock of snapping twigs.

After a while, a gentle light crept into the woods. The stars faded. We emerged from the woods, and walked back up the mountain road. Soft gray clouds floated above us like lazy mice, out of reach.


Thicker Than Water

July 8, 2010
1 Comment

Blood has many talents.

We think of it as a watery medium, like the Mississippi River, by which our body transports little necessary things.  This is true.  Ubiquitous red steamboats carry oxygen.  White ferries cluster at ports and fight infections.  Planks float around like debris, barely noticed until a hole in the bank threatens to flood the countryside — then they cluster together in a logjam to plug the hole.

But blood is not water that carries red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Blood is smart.

Blood knows where it is.

Blood is a homebody.

Like most of us, when it’s at home it relaxes.  Inside of blood vessels, blood flows along in liquidy happiness, carrying its red steamboats, its white ferries, and its little planks.  Proteins swirl around like algae, like fish, tiny messengers that bring this river world to life.

Away from home, blood tenses up.  Let it leave the safe haven of the blood vessel, and it coagulates immediately.  Liquid becomes solid, as if the algae and the fish had herded the planks until they stuck together, leaving no room for the river water.

Blood is smart enough to keep us from bleeding to death from small wounds.  Unfortunately, blood can be tricked.  It knows that if it senses the inside wall of a blood vessel then it is home.  What it can’t figure out is the difference between a superficial crack in the wall of the blood vessel — the equivalent of a chip in the paint — and a gaping, full-thickness hole.  Each of those feels like Not Home.  Each of those triggers the coagulation process.

So, if someone — my mother, for example — has a brittle, calcified deposit in the wall of an artery, and if this deposit cracks open, then the blood flowing past freaks out.  It screams “This Is Not Home! We’re bleeding to death!” and clots.  If the clot grows big enough, it can block the whole artery and deprive everything downstream of little necessary things like oxygen.

This is bad.

Even if the clot does not totally block the artery, it can still cause problems.  Clots can make babies — little pieces of themselves that detach and float off to make their way in the world.  These little pieces, or emboli, usually don’t get far.  They drift until they get to an arterial branch too narrow to pass, and then they stick there and block the flow.  This happened in my mother’s brain as she slept, early Monday morning last week.


When I was a child, sometimes when I felt stuck or scared at night I would drift down the hallway to my parents’ room.  I would pull the rocking chair over to the side of my parents’ bed, plug myself into it, rest my head on a pillow on the chair arm, reach out, and tuck my hand inside of my mother’s hand.  Though not physically comfortable, this brought me solace and a sense of safety.  Eventually, sleep would whisper in my ear and tell me to go back to bed.  My hand would slide out from under hers.  Usually, she didn’t move a muscle.  Sometimes, though I had been convinced that she was asleep, she would give my hand a little squeeze then let go.

Later — much later — this past Tuesday evening, in fact — we recreated this scene.  She slept in her bed in the telemetry unit in the hospital, 36 hours after having her stroke.  I was scared, yet also sleep deprived after having flown across the country to be with her.  I pulled the visitor’s chair next to her bed, plugged myself into it, rested my head on the cloth arm, reached out, and tucked my hand inside of hers.

Her music played softly from the CD player.  We had trouble figuring out what she wanted to listen to, because she was unable to say much more than “yes” or “no”, but eventually these words and some comically exaggerated gestures produced the gentle background stream of Celtic harp music.


My mother used to be an elementary school librarian.  Her love of books and her respect for the powerful internal lives of children made her library a safe haven for countless young creative, misunderstood souls.  I knew this even before the well wishes began pouring in from these children, now grown and generally quite successful.

She has been a woman of arts and letters her whole life.  Only recently does she seem to have realized what powerful writing skills she has, and it has been a joy to read what she has produced.  A biography of one of our ancestors who was involved with Mazzini and the Italian risorgiamento, whose letters she found a couple of years ago in an old trunk.  Reminiscences of corporate culture in the 1950s, sparked by watching the TV series Mad Men and pointing out its faults.  Descriptions of the grand old movie theaters in Hollywood, where she grew up in the 1940s.  (With maps!  Always the meticulous maps!)   Reminiscences of the elementary school where she worked all those years.

She seems to have known for a long time that her conversational skills can carry a phone conversation or a dinner party.  When she and my father were about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, I noticed that they would sit at the table for 2 or 3 hours after dinner, talking.  “What the hell do they have to say to each other?” I would ask my girlfriend.

“They’re in love,” she would say.

She was right, but the talking was important in itself.

On the Saturday before her stroke, I spoke on the phone with my mother for two hours.  We spoke about troubles with my own children, and about her brother and his having had similar troubles.  We spoke about an old friend of hers who had recently reestablished contact by sending her a long letter, and my mother’s worry that she couldn’t respond in kind.  We spoke about Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom we both love.  While we spoke, I walked past Gallow’s Hill (where they hanged the witches in 1692), past the Custom House (source of that transcendent introduction to The Scarlet Letter), and even to The House of the Seven Gables (a book which I have never read).  She described the passionate correspondence between his wife and him.  Our conversation rambled along with my feet.


When I got to her hospital room on Tuesday afternoon, after frantic phone calls and a cross-country trip, she had just returned from her MRI.  She hated it.  The technician apparently was gruff and insensitive, and my sister (who had accompanied her) was starting to explain this when my mother said her first word to me.

“Troglodyte,” she said, and made a face.  She laughed along with us.

“Troglodyte” did not reappear that day, but a few other words did.  She wanted her glasses, was lost and terribly frustrated for a while at her inability to explain this to us, then finally found the word “spectacles”.

She understood much of what we said, but had big gaps.  Even “yes” and “no”, when she said them, were not always correct.  “Yes,” she would answer to a question.  “YES,” she would say more emphatically when we took her at her word.  “Yes, yes, yes,” she would say, with an irritated tone, and then, finally, “NO”.


Along with her language, her right hand no longer works.  All of these things may — and probably will — return, at least enough to get by.  She has normal sensation.  She began having faint movements of her right hand a few days after the stroke.  On that Tuesday night, though, the hand was completely dead.  I tucked mine inside of it, got no response, then realized that the ancient ritual no longer applied.

I took her fingers in mine.  I stroked them as we both dozed.  I kneaded them with mine, back and forth, rhythmically, like a rosary.  I cried quietly for a while, when I felt sure she couldn’t see me, then slept.  At one point we both awoke, and my eyes met hers.  I know she wanted to give my hand that little squeeze.

Instead, she smiled.

Song of the Day — Patsy Cline

May 3, 2010

I was supposed to be a high school social studies teacher.  I love history — majored in it in college, soaked up every bit of early American social and intellectual history that I could find — and I’m a people person.  It seemed a perfect fit.  I degrade my chosen profession of medicine exactly ZERO to say that I still believe that teaching is the most important job in any civilization.

But those who can’t teach, do.

I had to do, because at 22 years old I couldn’t handle a classroom full of bored kids, and couldn’t figure out how to make more than a couple of them interested in the subject at hand.  I was not one of them — a teenager — anymore, but neither was I yet a real adult.  I tried to play the part of an adult, wearing a button-down shirt and a sports jacket and practicing the art of professional distance.  I felt mortified when one Saturday late in my semester as a student teacher, dressed like a slob and smoking a cigarette, I bumped into a group of my students.

“Mr. MAYper!  What are you doing here?”  It was a familiar girl’s voice.  I turned around, blew the smoke out of my mouth, brushed ashes off my T-shirt, and found I had been busted by three clean-cut girls who always sat up front.  I smiled, said hi while holding the cigarette away, mumbled something about needing to be somewhere, and bolted.

The upshot?  After graduating from college with a teaching certificate attached to my shiny Bachelor’s degree, I wound up a glorified nursing assistant at the local psychiatric hospital.

Thank God.

That job saved my life, and shaped it, to boot.  For one thing, every day I found conclusive proof that my brain was more normal than I had ever given it credit for.  For another, I quickly found that one-on-one is a different universe than one-on-classroom.  One-on-one, I could actually connect.  One-on-one, sometimes I made a difference.  Sure, some of the On-Ones were not so helped by a smile and a bendable ear.  When internal voices berate you and billboards send you messages, a skinny young guy with a scraggly beard may be less helpful than a whopping good dose of thorazine.

But many of the patients on my ward were just confused.  Depressed, anxious, kind of manic — all the same, in a way.  Life hands out lemons.  Some people make lemonaid, and some people have to dispose of the leftover lemon peels.

One way of dealing with lemon peels is to dunk them in vodka.  My last couple of years at Butler Hospital were spent working on the detox/rehab ward.  Many of our patients were already ambivalent about giving up their lifelong liquid lovers, and being locked inside a building with, uh, those less securely attached to reality made sobriety even less attractive.

Some people juggle their lemons.  Manic, depressed, anxious?  Try dipping into some vodka!  We specialized in “dual diagnosis” — substance abuse with… you name it.  Depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis.  Some people cycled through the detox ward on their way to treat their “real” problem.

But, like high school students, we all ate in the same cafeteria.  One of my duties as a mental health worker was to bring to the hospital cafeteria those patients who were allowed off the ward but not yet free to roam.  Detoxing sat near delusional.  Manic near mumbling.  Tourette’s near Ticked-What-The-Fuck-Are-You-Looking-At-Off.  As “milieu supervisor,” part of my job was to head off trouble.

One dinnertime, my group included our newest entry into rehab.  Gus was about 45, had been through this a few times, and had made quick work of my required admission questions and spiel.  He carried a second diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, but to me just didn’t seem serious.  I wondered why he had even submitted himself to something that clearly seemed tiresome to him.  He had long, bushy sideburns and a week’s beard growth.  His fingertips were stained from smoking.  I sat next to him because he seemed the type to pick a fight.  I was just tucking into my meal when he bellowed right next to my ear.

“Carla!  CARLA!  What the fuck are YOU doing here?”

He stared across the room, his fork in mid-air, at a woman I knew pretty well.  Carla was 40, with bad manic breaks, and just a couple of days earlier had won cafeteria privileges.  My stomach clenched.  I wanted to kill Gus.  I assumed she felt busted, mortified like I had felt that day on Thayer Street a few months earlier with my students.

The entire room paused.  Everyone not talking to himself looked over at Carla.  Carla waited a beat, then stood up and belted out a song.  We all — all of us in that cafeteria that long ago evening — listened, stunned, then laughed.  She sang it perfectly.  With one completely inappropriate display, she captured the room the way I wished I had captured my classroom of distracted teens, and she taught a young ex-teacher a lesson in how to be who you are — loudly, proudly and open to the public.

This was the song she sang:


Song of the Day — George Harrison

April 10, 2010

For our wedding day, I made a couple of mix tapes.  (Started off with a recording of the end of Annie Hall, in which Woody Allen tells the old joke about the man whose brother thinks he’s a chicken, but doesn’t get help for him “because we need the eggs.”  He says that’s how he feels about relationships — that they’re irrational, and crazy and absurd, but we keep trying because “we need the eggs.”  Then we hear Diane Keaton singing “Seems Like Old Times.”   The wedding guests out in the meadow that long ago Vermont summer day were milling about, confused at first, but quieted pretty quickly and realized this was the beginning of the ceremony.)

Anyway, as you may suspect from this blog, I put my heart into those cassette mixes.  (The Annie Hall bit required some high tech assistance from my almost-ex-brother-in-law Gilby to transfer from VHS.)  This was the music that would play at the times I chose.  Everything else — clothes, setting, food, vows, time of day — I let Sarah have the last word on.  Anyway, at some point someone got the bright idea that he could take my cassette out of the tape player and put in a George Harrison album.

Take my cassette out.

Play George Harrison.

Most people think I’m mellow and easy to get along with.  (Yes, I know YOU know different.  And you too.  Yes, you too too.  But you are the privileged few at whom I stress and grump.)  Most people at that wedding reception found out that Nick can get UPTIGHT and TOTALLY UNCOOL, DUDE — MELLOW OUT, I’M PUTTING YOUR TAPE BACK IN.  CALM DOWN!  when something sets him off.

(Is it possible to START with a digression?  I think I may just have set the record — off topic after ZERO percent of the topic has been presented, and then a SUBdigression!  Eat shit, David Foster Wallace.  Did you ever START with a footnote?  HAH!)


Anyway, George Harrison.  Years later, when he was about to die, then pretty quickly completed that act, I listened to his stuff with fresh ears.  Much of it — sorry, reincarnated George Harrison wherever and whatever you are now — is not great.  But some of it is.  It really is.  And his first album after the Beatles broke up, All Things Must Pass, was better than Paul’s OR John’s first post-Beatles albums.

Most Beatles fans probably think about “My Sweet Lord” as the kinda sorta yeah the judge ruled against him plagiarized but great song from this album.  But there’s another song that he didn’t like the first time around but included on the 30th anniversary remixed album that I’m so glad he pulled in.  It’s “I Live For You,” which I get very annoying about because each time it comes on I restart it to catch the very first second of Pete Drake’s INCREDIBLE steel guitar.  Wow.  Just love the solo towards the end, love the way he brings you into the song, and while you don’t have to be blown away by this like I am, I feel bad for you if you don’t like it.

I Live For You

Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Swamp Ghost Blues Again

March 10, 2010
1 Comment

Help!  I’m stuck!  I have escaped from the swamp with this long fragment, and need feedback.  Should I keep going?  Does any of this work?  I wrote this a week ago and can’t decide what to do with it….

I Wish I Were Here

Sometimes in the middle of the day the sun fades.  Occasionally, BAM!, it’s as if someone hit the light switch.  More often it’s insidious, gradual, as if someone were carefully adjusting the dimmer.

My cherished friends fade with the sun.  This weird half-light distorts them.  They shrink, as if I were viewing them through the wrong end of a telescope.  I don’t know where they go, or what they do during these times.  I am just thankful that they reappear with the sun.

Some of them are persistent buggers.  They call to me, keep shouting though it hurts their throats.  They tell me things, like:

it’s just a solar eclipse, or

high clouds are making the day hazy, or

it’s just fog, it will pass, or

I’m standing in a dark cave, didn’t I notice? or

my glasses are dirty, or

I’ve been hit on the head and should recover soon, or

my favorite

I’m wearing a blindfold, what the fuck do I think happens to the light if I wear a blindfold?

I love my friends.  The shouting at me, the shining of flashlights into my eyes, the slap to the face or the arm around the shoulder all help.  But they are wrong.

The problem is ghosts.

Ghosts leak, sometimes flood, into the world.  Like high clouds or an eclipsing moon, they hover between me and the sun, refracting light and reflecting heat back into space.  Like a dense fog, they muffle sounds and smells.  Like a blow to the head, they slow my thoughts and reactions.

Finally they get my attention.  I look into the mirror, see myself distorted and tiny as if I’m looking again through the wrong end of that telescope, reverse the telescope to magnify the picture, and lo and behold — it’s not a person at all!  Ghosts have stolen the person, have fooled me by stuffing straw into my old clothes and propping me up.  They love this game.  It’s like an Easter egg hunt, only they hide me instead of eggs, and they don’t even dye me any nice colors.

I sigh.  Shake the straw into the trash can.  Step out of the clothes.  Step through the mirror, and look for where they hid me.  This game is really tiresome, although I admit it is still a thrill when I find me.

I hate chasing ghosts.  Sometimes I just stand in front of the mirror, holding my breath, pretending that I like being made of straw.  Or ignoring the tell-tale rustling it makes against my clothes.  Maybe the ghosts will get distracted, I tell myself.  Or bored.  Maybe if I lie down and close my eyes they will return me.

I used to try to out wait them.  Now I’m so sick of waking up still dead that I take the fight to them.

This time, as soon as I find this itchy scarecrow, this blank mannequin, this crash-test dummy, into the trash it goes.  The ghosts have grown complacent.  They still think I will wait in bed, and give them a big head start.  Fuck them, I think, as I climb through the mirror, taking care to avoid the jagged edges.

I jump into the swamp.

Strange setting, a swamp in winter.  Thin snow covers thick ice.  I feel a crunch with each step, hear the squeak of my heel against the snow.  The afternoon is pale, but, ironically, in the land of ghosts sounds are sharp and sights are crisp.  Gray, leafless branches sag from above, and black, leafless sticks sprout in clusters here and there through the ice.  Vegetation normally covers the swamp like dreadlocks, but winter acts like chemotherapy.  It spares only stubble and sparse tufts.

Whether in summer or winter, each type of ghost has its habitat.  The big, scary ghosts dominate the deepest swamp .The edges are less intimidating.

I always land near the the Sock Tree, the only plant here that blooms year-round.  It is festooned with orphaned socks (never mine, alas) that dangle like leaves.

Behind me is the enormous Mound of Foreskins, each undulating in his own rhythm, retracting from the width of a bandaid to that of a thick rubber band, then relaxing again with a faint whispered “oy.”

Ahead is Choir of Virginities, who dress in white 1970s leisure suits, faces like Barbie and Ken dolls, each practically indistinguishable from the others.  They look peaceful.  Once, I spent an afternoon mingling with them, looking for an ancient version of myself.  By then end, I felt like a ghost too.  Nothing touches them, and they touch nothing. Each attempt at a handshake, each inadvertent brush against the clean polyester suits, each attempt at eye contact left me frustrated.  Each of them was surrounded by a sort of static electric force that drove dirt from my clothes and wrinkles from my skin, but eventually bleached my senses and threatened to isolate me forever from reality.


You might think that no shelter exists here for the living, but there, at the head of a peninsula of dry land, is 4640 St. Clair Avenue, the North Hollywood house I grew up in.  My parents sold it in 1988 and moved far away, but the house stays just as I remember it.  Mock tudor, white stucco, wood shingled roof, with a single turret, it always felt like a castle to me.

Gravity relaxes on this peninsula — I don’t know why — and with a little concentration I can float.  Lift feet, one by one, gently from the ground.  Not too quickly.  Smooth moves work best.  Tuck them under me like airplane wheels retracting, and silently drift through my open bedroom window.

Drift Away

Many times the ghosts have left me right here.  They can get lazy, and sometimes they drop me like a carcass on this little old bed.  No such luck today.  I linger a moment anyway, savoring my old record player, my black transistor radio, my stamp collection.  I sense the warmth of my old blanket, draw strength from it, and move on.

I float through the bedroom wall, into the narrow kitchen.  I hover above the refrigerator, nestled into the corner of the ceiling, and watch my mother pull a roast from the oven to check it.  She sings, I can hear her, “Drift Away,” by Dobie Gray.  My sister sits at the table, using colored pencils to draw a princess reading a story to a sleepy dragon.  My father wanders in, eyes the roast cheerfully, and offers to set the table.  My child self rarely appears when I am here — if memory serves, he usually is watching TV at the other end of the house.

To this incorporeal family, I must seem like the ghost.  They can’t hear me.  I know because I’ve tried talking to them in the past.  My arms pass through them if I try to touch them or hug them.  I stopped trying to touch the ghosts of people in this world because when I do this it drains them for a moment of color.  They deserve unmolested virtual lives.

I can’t touch them, but I sometimes can hear them.  Every once in a while, if I’m lucky, I catch also  a whiff of frying onions, or of suntan lotion, or the smell of perfume and cigarette smoke clinging to my mother’s clothes when she has just gotten home from a party.

Today, though, I see their ages, and realize that this peaceful dinnertime scene takes place in the late 1970s.  This was when, as if from a broken sewage main, ghosts first flooded our house.  I shudder.  Those were terrible ghosts, and I am not able to battle them today.  The scene wavers and blurs.  I propel myself up through the ceiling then out through the curved windows of my mother’s sewing room.  I glide down to the edge of the swamp.  Distracted, I land clumsily, with squeaks and crunches, and start my search for real.


As I pass among the gray trunks and branches, ghosts ooze from invisible nests and sniff at me.  These ghosts are larger and hungrier than the ones at the shore, but still can only hurt me if I let my guard down.

I kick aside a pile of leaves to reveal a clear patch in the ice.  There at the bottom of the swamp, only a couple of feet down this close to shore, are the amputated stumps of my patients’ legs.  That one is definitely Michael’s — I remember how his foot looked before they took his leg off below the knee.  And those two must be Juan’s — one below-the-knee stump nestled into the crook of the above-the-knee stump, like a mother and child trapped in amber.  I’m glad they are together.  My theory is that the stumps sleep nestled in the mud, like hibernating frogs, waiting to rejoin the rest of the body when it, too, becomes a ghost.

Here is an odd one.  A substantial ghost leg attached to an ethereal, almost invisible boy who wears old-fashioned clothes.  I realize this belongs to Frank, my 70 year old patient with a withered left leg from the polio he had at age 12.  It lies pale and shivering in the snow.  No wonder it causes him such pain still in real life.

After finding these limbs, I am not surprised to find a cluster of whole-bodied former patients of mine.  It is a larger group than I thought it would be.  People do drift away, I suppose, move out of town, find other doctors, and then die without announcing it to me.  I anxiously scan the group, worried that this time one of them will look angry at me and tell me it was my fault they died.  It’s a relief to be spared this once again, although I’m sure one day it will happen.  It is sad enough to see these people, each of whom embraces me, each of whom wears a dagger-shaped gilt pendant that stabs me as we draw close.

The most recently dead approach me first.  I’m sorry Hilda, I say,  that I didn’t even know you were in the hospital.  Your niece just told me yesterday about your heart attack.  Hello, Mary.  You know that nothing short of a transplant would have saved you, right?  Oh, Antonio, you are so tiny.  You weighed not much more than a pound when you were born, but what your mother lost when she lost you was worse even than the pound of flesh that Shylock threatened to take.  Here is the ghost of her happiness, holding you.  Cradling you in her arms the way she couldn’t when you were alive and hooked up to those tubes and machines.

The recent arrivals file past me one by one, as if in a receiving line.  Next are some familiar old faces.  Miguel Angel, a beautiful, black-haired, normal-looking 6 hour old baby boy.  He has no dagger pendant; instead he clutches in his tiny perfect fingers the piece of my heart he took with him when he died.  Johnny, who killed himself after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  His dagger is jagged.  Johnny, I say each time, it’s so treatable.  Why did you do that?  I should never have tested you — you would have lived longer if I hadn’t.  Rosa, my first hospice patient.  She has no dagger.  She just takes my hands in hers and pats them.  Thank you, Rosa, I tell her again, for showing me what a peaceful and dignified death looks like.

Eventually, the ghosts become less substantial, and stop wearing gilded daggers.  One group does wrap itself around me, squeezing so that my chest hurts — it is the young men (my age when I knew them) who filled the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital when I was a medical student, and who died just before effective treatment became available.


Now I hit the deeper parts of the swamp, where in warm weather the water is so deep that I must make a raft to travel in it.  I come across an icehouse.  How odd.  It looks like a nice suburban home, with Christmas lights strung along the sides of the roof. I realize this is Rosanne’s house, that this is HER ghost, haunting me, too.   Rosanne has metastatic cancer, and so far has held her own against it through 2-1/2 years and over 50 rounds of chemotherapy.  She may survive for a long time, and she has legions of supporters praying for this, but she knows that planning even one year ahead takes moxie.

She told me this story:  this past Christmas she was feeling sick from her chemotherapy, and her daughter and sister-in-law were cooking Christmas dinner while she rested up in her room.  After a while, she felt better and came downstairs to help.  Dinner, though, was almost ready.  Her boys had set the table.  Her husband was out picking up his aunt.  She wasn’t needed.

In that moment, Rosanne saw her very own ghost of Christmas future.  She saw exactly how her family might gather after she died.  How the work she normally did would be apportioned among her husband and children.  She says that not being needed made her feel like a ghost already.

Swamp Ghosts — Introduction

February 24, 2010

Sometimes in the middle of the day the sun fades.  Occasionally, BAM!, it’s as if someone hit the light switch.  More often it’s insidious, gradual, as if someone were carefully adjusting the dimmer.

My cherished friends fade with the sun.  This weird half-light distorts them.  They shrink, as if I were viewing them through the wrong end of a telescope.  I don’t know where they go, or what they do during these times.  I am just thankful that they reappear with the sun.

Some of them are persistent buggers.  They call to me, keep shouting though it hurts their throats.  They tell me things, like:

it’s just a solar eclipse, or

high clouds are making the day hazy, or

it’s just fog, it will pass, or

I’m standing in a dark cave, didn’t I notice? or

my glasses are dirty, or

I’ve been hit on the head and should recover soon, or

my favorite

I’m wearing a blindfold, what the fuck do I think happens to the light if I wear a blindfold?

I love my friends.  The shouting at me, the shining of flashlights into my eyes, the slap to the face or the arm around the shoulder all help.  But they are wrong.

The problem is ghosts.

Ghosts leak, sometimes flood, into the world.  Like high clouds or an eclipsing moon, they hover between me and the sun, refracting light and reflecting heat back into space.  Like a dense fog, they muffle sound and smells.  Like a blow to the head, they slow my thoughts and reactions.

Finally they get my attention.  I look into the mirror, see myself distorted and tiny as if I’m looking again through the wrong end of that telescope, reverse the telescope to magnify the picture, and lo and behold — it’s not a person at all!  Ghosts have stolen the person, have fooled me by stuffing straw into my old clothes and propping me up.  They love this game.  It’s like an Easter egg hunt, only they hide me instead of eggs, and they don’t even dye me any nice colors.

I sigh.  Shake the straw into the trash can.  Step out of the clothes.  Step through the mirror, and look for where they hid me.  This game is really tiresome, although I admit it is still a thrill when I find me.

The King

February 6, 2010

It was my fault that Rocco surprised me.  I asked him, “Do you want to go for a walk?”  But, rather than looking at him as I asked, I focused on the scene outside the window.

Providence, RI, is a damp, gray, mysterious city.  It’s sort of a northern colony of New Orleans – history and hidden beauty mixed with decay and outrageous corruption.  It’s filled with treasures, a mossy fountain crusted with coins.  May and September bring a sprinkling of bright days, lilypads on the surface of the water, and this early May morning bloomed spectacular.

I had walked a roundabout route to work that day, past the backstreet nooks that held my favorite quirky old houses, past my favorite enormous copper beech  tree, along the bustling, blossoming length of Blackstone Boulevard.  I had ambled slowly and waved at the sweaty joggers as they passed.

Butler Hospital, the psychiatric hospital where I had worked for the previous year after flaming out of a would-be career as a high school social studies teacher, still maintained its original pastoral façade.  Founded in the 1830s, the hospital was set amidst spacious lawns and woods that once had held fields where the patients could “improve” themselves with light and air and physical labor.  Now, most of the grounds resembled an English country estate, with narrow walkways weaving along trimmed lawns and shrubbery, enroofed by towering trees that dripped in the fog and the misting rain.

Occasionally, while I walked outside with a group of patients who had improved enough for such a privilege, the group would stop, hushed, as we glimpsed a deer in the shell of untended woods that surrounded the hospital grounds.  Birds were plentiful in the spring.  Most reliable, though, were the squirrels.  They were everywhere, darting across the grass singly or in pairs, scampering scritch-scritch up a tree trunk, then looking back at us accusingly.  Some were quite bold.  One might hold his ground, up on two feet, ears like antenna dishes, holding an acorn, as if daring one of us to come fight him for it.

“I’d love to come for a walk, Nick,” Rocco said, pulling me back from my reverie.  I looked at his face for the first time, and now saw him twitch and bite his lip. He stood from the chair where he had seemed to be sunning himself peacefully, hitched up his pants and looked out the window.  “I’d really love to go outside, little buddy.  But those squirrels… those squirrels…”  His voice grew tight.  “They all have those damned transmitters, and I just can’t handle that right now.”

I chuckled.  I didn’t feel intimidated by him as I had at first, and thought he was being light-hearted about this.  Rocco was a big guy – 6’3”, maybe 250 pounds – and had scared me two weeks earlier when he had been admitted at the peak of a full blown psychotic break.  Those first days he had yelled at everyone, threatening to get his Mafia friends to “whack” one or the other of us, begging me one evening in an exaggerated whisper to cut “right here” behind each ear – “right here, where they put the electronics” that controlled his thoughts and that spoke so incessantly at night when he wanted to sleep.  In Rhode Island you never can be sure someone’s Mafia fears are not in fact justified, but Rocco’s constant muttering — phrases about Mafia hits, diatribes against the people who were plotting to invade his home and kill him – undercut his message.

He had never even tried to hit anyone, though.  Given the terrible insults and provocations that the voices in his head screamed at him, I had decided early on that this made him a supremely honorable man.  I had told him as much, a few days into his stay, as the medications were starting to kick in and he had started to be able to hear my words over the cacophony inside of his head.

He had liked that, and had seemed to decide to trust me then.  That was the evening he had asked me to cut him.  When I had refused, he had looked at me sadly, and said, “I understand, Nick.  I’m scared of them, too.  You don’t want any part of this.”  After that, he had decided he would be my protector, and I had became “little buddy.”  He had started confiding in me more.  His battle stories had become more coherent, though still lost in his impossible logic.

I knew that he had been transferred from Rhode Island Hospital with a now nearly healed stab wound to his abdomen, and that he had also been treated for minor burns on his right temple.  I asked him what had happened.

“Well, little buddy, I’ll tell you.  You’ve got to be careful.  Some of these white guys are no good.”  I nodded, a little surprised.  Rocco and I were both as Caucasian as they come.

“There’s a light outside my window, outside my kitchen window, that has been on all the time since I moved to this apartment a couple of years ago.  It’s always on.  That’s why I took the apartment, because I that way I can see if someone’s sneaking up on me.  Anyway, I get up that night – I KNEW something was up, knew it for days – and guess what?  The light is off.  Off.  On constantly for two years, and now suddenly burns out in the middle of the night?  I don’t think so.

“So anyway, I’m sweating I tell you.  Cold sweat.  My heart is pounding.  I should have planned, I think.  You idiot, why didn’t you plan ahead?  You knew this was going to happen.  But there I was.  Had to improvise.  First thing, I grab a steak knife, and CUT,” he mimicked the action with both hands, holding something in one while swiping with the other.  Dramatically looking me in the eye.  “CUT the phone cord.”  He paused.

“Why’d you cut the phone cord, Rocco?” I asked.

He grinned.  “Hah!  You need to know this, little buddy.  They intercept phone calls, especially 911, so you think you’re calling the police, but it’s really THEM who show up, in fake squad cars!  I didn’t want them to listen to what I was doing, so I cut the cord.  Stuck the steak knife in my back pocket.

“So, how do I go about getting the real police to come, I ask myself.  I pick up my TV, and CHUCK it through the kitchen window to distract them.  BANG!  CRASH! It lands on someone’s car in the parking lot.  But my dumbass neighbors — I don’t know WHAT they thought I was doing, but no one does nothing.  Then I realize, hey, I can get the firemen to come!  So I grab lighter fluid and squirt it on the rug in my hallway.  I don’t have a match, but you know what I DO keep next to my bed, little buddy?”  He paused and smiled.  Leaned towards me conspiratorially.

“I don’t know, Rocco.”  I felt a little scared to ask.

“A FLARE gun!” he whispered loudly, then resumed his normal booming tone of voice.  “Those bastards got their lawyer mob buddies to keep me away from real guns, but I read the order carefully, and it says NOTHING about flare guns!”  He giggled as he said this, a gleeful expression on his face.  “So, anyhow, I use the flare gun to light the rug so someone will call the fire department.” The energy seeped from his voice, and he looked down at the floor.  “I missed.  I missed, or it ricocheted or something.  Hit me right here in the noggin,” he said, pointing to his right temple, where his skin still held a few scabs, and smiling ruefully.

“Anyhow, I come to, the flare is smoldering on the floor, so I put it on the rug and it catches fire.  I go to the window I busted with the TV, and yell FIRE a bunch of times.  I don’t know how long it took – felt like forever – but finally I hear sirens.  Think I’m saved.  But then,” his voice and eyes dropped again.  “I panicked.  Thought maybe THEY were pretending to be the firemen.  Realized that they had had too much time and were closing in on me.  So when the firemen came in I was ready.  I took the steak knife out of my back pocket, put it into my shirt pocket, and as they came in the door – BAM! – I hit the handle and bury it to the hilt.  Hurt like a bastard!  Sorry.  But it did.  Oh, man.  They say I’m lucky it didn’t hit an organ.  But they HAD to take me then.  They HAD to take me to the hospital, otherwise they’d be busted for being fakes.”

Rocco was still looking at the floor.  He smiled and shook his head slowly.  “I need a better plan next time, I tell ya little buddy.  That plan sucked.”

As more time passed, he paced and muttered less.  He began asking about my life.  I answered in only the vaguest of generalities, but he used these to construct a vision of me.  He decided that I must be in want of big muscles, and each day gave me tips on how to buff up.  “Are you sore?  Not doing it right if you’re not sore, huh?” he would say, pinching my arm painfully, jovially.  I played along.  He began reaching out to some of the female staff, although in a horrid way.  A pleasant, earnest, almost pleading smile would follow a comment like, “You’ve got a real nice ass, you know that?  Real nice.”

After a while even this had faded, and Rocco had been granted outdoor privileges by Dr. Cianci, his psychiatrist.  Each morning, he would emerge from his room showered and shaved, thin hair combed back and gelled, lotion applied to his burn, wearing pressed pants with buttoned down shirt and loafers.  Each morning he would complain about not being able to wear a belt.  “Don’t want to look like a goomba,” he would say.  He seemed to be on the launching pad, ready to be discharged home.  But then, just as the violence in his head was subsiding, riots exploded in L.A.

The previous year a videotape of an African American man named Rodney King being beaten by four Los Angeles police officers after a traffic stop had made the national news.  It was so prominent that Rocco’s word salad ravings early in his admission had occasionally included “like Rodney King” and “cops’ll beat you you like that guy in L.A.”  The four officers had been charged with assault, and their acquittal that Wednesday despite the deeply disturbing videotape sparked angry protests that grew and then quickly shattered into anarchy.  The TV switched from endless replays of the beating to constant images of looting, of fresh beatings, of gunfire, and of what seemed like a thousand fires spewing black smoke throughout South Central and downtown L.A.

Rocco was obsessed with it.  “See?  What’d I tell ya little buddy?  Some of these white folks are no good,” as he paced back and forth in front of the unit TV.  “I don’t blame them.  I don’t blame them,” he started repeating, his face contorted and angry.  “Got to start the fire.  Got to call for help.”

He started asking for sleeping meds, which he had not needed for the previous few days.  Started pacing more.  By that Sunday, order had been restored in L.A.  and Rocco had stopped checking the TV so frequently.  I, in reaction against Rocco’s obsession, had blocked out the riots as much as I could.  These things happen.  Nothing to do with my life.  Figured I had my own problems.

All of the staff on the unit that morning when I wanted to take Rocco for a walk were white.  In fact, all of the patients that day, including Rocco, were white.  I don’t think I had seen a non-white person on my way to work.  So I felt doubly surprised when, after I chuckled at Rocco’s squirrel remark, he whipped his head around to glare at me and said, “What’s so funny, WHITE boy?”

I giggled, reflexively.  This was unexpected.

His hands wringing each other, he leaned his face closer to mine.  “I SAID, what’s so FUNNY, white boy?”

“Come on, Rocco,” I said, stepping back a little, but projecting the joviality that he often responded to, as if we were just two guys at the gym horsing around.  Rodney King a couple of days earlier had made a statement to help calm the city, and I reflexively imitated his voice as I said, “Can we all get along?  Can’t we all just get along?”

His face reddened, and I finally started to see that he was in trouble.  He turned away briefly, said, “I mean… I mean… I MEAN…”  He was shouting now, and other staff members started towards us.  He looked towards them, announced to everyone on the unit, “WHITE boy here thinks I’m funny!”  He turned back towards me and raised a fist.  “I think I want WHITE boy to get away from me.”

I backed up quickly, as the circle of mental health workers closed in.  I heard the alarm from the panic button behind us.  I still had not shifted focus, felt stuck in the camaraderie that Rocco and I had developed in the preceding week, and said, “Rocco, it’s ok.  I’m sorry.”

He lunged at me, was caught by my colleagues before he could hit me.  He started screaming, “WHITE boy here thinks he’s so great.  WHITE boy won’t take the gear out of my head.  WHITE boy thinks he’s so buff, thinks he can control me.  He’s not so buff.  I taught him about buff.  WHITE boy’s a pussy, and I’m going to get him whacked.”  He was pinned now on the carpet, one person to each of his arms, one on his legs.  Part of my job was to help with patient restraints, so I knelt and took one leg.  This was standard protocol, to keep both patients and staff safe.

Rocco shifted gears as I touched him, though.  Powerful thrashing, lunging, spitting, bucking.  “Get WHITE boy off of me!” he screamed.  “WHITE boy is killing me!  AAARGH!  Stop it, WHITE boy!  SOMEBODY LIGHT A FIRE!”  He calmed a bit, then thrashed.  Rested, then thrashed again.  The rest of the team arrived, and we carried him to the isolation room where we held him pinned, face down, until the nurse could arrive to inject a sedative.  He was powerful, and he was sweaty, but we held him tight.  His bottom was the only part of his body that was not restrained.  At one point – we all later gave him points for ingenuity – he stopped thrashing, tensed his body for a moment, and unleashed a silent gaseous stench that almost overpowered us.

After a while his yelling became more pleading.  “I’ll be good.  Just get WHITE boy out of here, and I’ll be good.”  We staff members looked at each other, a couple of the guys nodded, and I left.  Rocco kept his word.  One of the nurses went in holding a syringe, injected him, checked the dressing on his belly wound.  Then everyone came bustling out.  The door, with its thin slit of a window, latched shut, and Rocco was left alone with his voices, his button down shirt and rumpled pants, and his slicked back, now-sweaty hair.  We never used physical restraints like straps at Butler, so he was free to bang against the walls and door, which he did every time he saw my face.   I was assigned the duty of peeking in at least every 5 minutes to note and document his physical safety, and each time I did so the door would shudder with his kick and “go away, WHITE BOY” would ring out from inside.

Eventually someone relieved me, and the kicking and yelling stopped.  Rocco started singing after a while.  Gospels, mostly.  Then, after a pause, he chanted, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”  I rolled my eyes, thinking he had lost all of the gains of the prior two weeks.  That his delusions had completely captured him.

Then he went on, and soon I realized he was making a speech.  He delivered, in perfect imitation of the original cadences, the entire “I Have A Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.  That was the first time I had ever heard it all the way through.  As he reached the red hills of Georgia, and “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”, his voice grew slurred.  He managed to finish, even made it through the litany of “Let Freedom Ring from…” without missing one.  I had to look that up later.  By the time he finished, nestled in a corner, sliding through the final “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last” and falling asleep, the unit was hushed.  We all, patients, staff – even White Boy – had been taken by Rocco from the fierce urgency of his outburst, through the great trials and tribulations of our attack dog/fire hose/LAPD response and his confinement to his narrow jail cell, to the stone of hope that he hewed out of his mountain of despair.


I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted,

and every hill and mountain shall be made low,

the rough places will be made plain,

and the crooked places will be made straight;

and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.


I finally managed to take a few patients for a walk.  Rocco had been sleeping for an hour or so, and we decided it would be best for me not to be among those who collected him from the isolation room to bring him back to his bed.  We had missed the window of sunshine, but even the drizzle of that spring noontime felt refreshing after the tumult of the morning.  I felt thankful to live in the moist murkiness of Providence and not the arid, smoky anarchy of southern California.  The damp green grass squeaked under our feet, the trees felt majestic and protective, and the squirrels were in full flower, scurrying along the grass, picking up acorns, and swiveling their transmitters as we walked past.

Dinosaur Eggs

February 5, 2010

It was a Jurassic Park summer.  I don’t remember which sequel it was, but billboards throughout the San Fernando Valley had dinosaurs bursting through the tops, and the toy stores and fast food chains swarmed with toothy reptiles.  Ann was entering the third year of her OB/GYN residency, and I had taken on an extra summer school gig teaching physics at Grant High School to supplement our income.  William, closing in on three years old, was molting — shedding toddlerhood and daily becoming more a little boy.  I had finally begun trusting him without a diaper around the house that spring, and now he paraded around the house proudly unpantsed at all times.

I casually let drop in conversations whenever possible that yeah, I was a housedad, no it’s not a big deal, it’s just part of being a good father, I don’t see why people make a fuss about it.  Which usually elicited the coos and the praise that I craved.  “You’re such a WONderful father,” I had been told by a thirty-something woman when William was about three months old.  We were in a waiting room, a sweaty William stuffed into a front pack against my chest, when he had started grunting and fussing.  I had grabbed a bottle of formula from the diaper bag, popped the top off, screwed on the nipple, and jiggled it into his mouth.  I was about to go back to reading my magazine when her comment had rung out from the other corner of the room.  She had looked at me adoringly, and her voice carried the same syrupy tone one might bestow upon a slow four-year-old who had managed — for once — to poop in the potty.

This had been my favorite story for a while, a perfect example of the soft bigotry of low expectations, the enabling of fathers everywhere to shirk their duties.  While these protestations had at first been sincere, the praise they fished for had become addictive.  I often felt trapped with William, and resented Ann for her brutal schedule that kept her away so much, and a shell of a person when she was home.  I couldn’t help envying her her perfect excuse to avoid taking care of things like shopping and laundry.  “Oh, sure,” I would catch myself thinking.  “You get to go take call tomorrow while I have to stay here and keep our lives going.”  Teaching summer school was easy enough, as I had taught the same class, even had had a few of the same students, during the school year.  It barely covered the cost of William’s day care, but the point was to stay sane.

I wanted to feel like this class was something more than makework, so I dreamed up a whole unit that revolved around space travel.  About 80% of the students were boys, so I thought this could give them a hook to use to tackle the hideous required textbook.  Photos of rocket ships, and astronauts littered our dining room table for a couple of weeks as I struggled to create lesson plans.  Ann had complained — she liked our food-related life to be orderly and predictable, and cooking was the one thing she ever had energy for at home these days — but I had privately relished the chance to show that I could dive into my important work, too.  She talked a good game, even stoutly maintained that teaching is more important than medicine because “our whole future depends upon it,” but I had trouble figuring out where exhaustion ended and lack of interest began for her these days.

We had many such issues.  All of our careful planning for the strains of her residency carried us through most of the first year.  Now we were only halfway through the four year marathon.  Money was tight, negotiations about childcare almost always ended with my tight faced, grudging defeat – er, acquiescence – chores either were left undone or were done while spraying frustration the whole time, and our bed began to look like this:

l l

two vertical lines, raised edges and middle.

Worst of all, we had started to wrestle for William’s attention.  It had started innocently, I suppose, as Ann’s guilt and sincere worries had led her to tap underground reservoirs of energy and connection for him.  She would come home exhausted and burnt, sit in her parked car for a few minutes closing her eyes and summoning her energy, then burst into the house sparkling revelry and motherliness.  William, of course, acted as if the sun had risen and life had now begun.

“Mommeeeeeeee!,” he would squeal as he ran to her.  She would scoop him up and twirl, as if her life had begun too, and she would ask him detailed questions about his day, sit with him on his bed as he told her about dinosaurs, and astronauts, and (prompting a disapproving glance at me) the latest TV episode of Dragonball-Z.  At first I had welcomed the homecoming of my beloved wife along with her distraction of William.  Gradually I discovered that this life renewing ritual required blood sacrifice, and that it each iteration tore another chunk from the heart of our marriage to cast into the fire.  I wanted credit, I wanted to tell her of my day like William got to, and I didn’t want to hear about her anxieties and near misses and especially her complaints about the other residents and who did or didn’t measure up.

Eventually I decided that she was a lost cause, that our marriage was in deep freeze until she finished residency.  At that point, I realized how much I wanted credit for being a dad.  I wanted to be told what a fucking awesome father I was, and if that was not forthcoming I wanted all of William.  His adoration, his excitement and his gratitude.  I wanted him to know that I was the one his life revolved around.

I started picking him up early from day care.  Taking him to the park.  Going to toy stores.  After one night when Ann begged off of our weekly date in order to sleep, I decided that the money we reserved for that was fair game, and used it to buy toys for William.  His favorite was plastic dinosaur egg that came apart to reveal a baby raptor.

One afternoon, an hour after we had gotten home from one of our expeditions, while I was grading midterm exams, William piped up from the floor next to our bed.  I had not noticed what he was doing, except that he had taken his pants off and had started making growling dinosaur noises.

“Hey Dad!” he said, excitedly, his high pitched voice sounding like he had breathed helium.

“Yes, William?” I answered, distracted.

“Do you know what my balls are?”  I looked down at him.  He sat, legs wide open, hunched over, staring at his scrotum and holding one testicle delicately between his thumb and forefinger.

“What, Billy Goat?”  I smiled.

He looked up excitedly.  “EGGS!”  He smiled and waited.

“Eggs?” I said.

“Yeah, EGGS!” he said.  “And you know what they’re gonna hatch?”  His smile widened.

“What, William?”

He paused for effect, exactly the way his mother did, then said in huge whisper, “DINOSAURS!”  His grin stretched impossibly.

That night Ann and I bonded over his crazy revelation.  I cringed at the thought of any animal, let alone a dinosaur, erupting through my scrotum, and this cracked her up.  “I won’t bore you tonight with what wimps you men are,” she said, and moved closer to me.  The double-l of our bed blurred that night.


Ann had an easy call month that October, which worked as well as we had planned for the beginning of the school year.  She caught up with sleep, caught up with William, replenished her reservoirs and allowed the heart of our marriage to regenerate some of its missing chunks.  Our bed even regained its healthy blur.

On the last Sunday of her easy month, I was sitting again in bed grading homework.  William again sat on the floor near me.  I think Ann was swimming.  William wore the Viking helmet that was part of the costume he would wear that Halloween.  He loved costumes.  That morning, though, this was the only piece of clothing or costume that he deigned to let touch him.

I loved the look.  Earlier that day, while walking downstairs, I had snapped a photo from behind that I intended to dub Nude With Viking Helmet Descending A Staircase.  He had a tight little completely-non-poopy bottom that I thought was the cutest thing in the whole damn universe.

Anyway, that morning, while tightly holding his penis, he stood up, grinned a huge grin, and asked me, “Hey Dad!  You know what I’m going to be when I grow up?”

“What, Billy Goat?”

He paused his pause.  His voice was conspiratorial.  “A WOMAN astronaut!”

I felt surprised, and let myself show it.  “Really, Billy Goat?”

“Yes,” he said.  “I’ll have NO PENIS!”

I raised my eyebrows, and thought furiously.  Argh.  This was too much.  I couldn’t let my child – a son, especially – believe that a woman was just a man without a penis.  It wasn’t even that Ann would go ballistic.  I could not have this affront to what I believed as well.  If any son on this green earth were going to learn that vaginas are full fledged organs on par with and maybe better than penises, it would be MY son.

“No penis?” I said.  “What WILL you have, then?”

Long pause.  He looked at the floor.  This was not William’s usual pause for effect.  He was clearly stumped.  After a moment, though, his face lit up.  He let go his penis, grabbed his Viking horns, and looked back at me.


Enough about contractions. Time for a retraction.

January 26, 2010
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The little embellishments in these mostly true stories don’t bother me.  Ted did not arrive to greet Henry with a shaved head and rat skull earring.  Noel did not meet Una until 1950.  Veronica had no rhinestone-crusted cellphone.

My mom, however, helped me see that a line about her father in Lost and Found was both sloppy writing and, more importantly, “a little brutal.”

Spot on, mama.   A troubled man who tried his best deserves more respect from the grandson who never knew him.  The line is now changed.  Your other stylistic suggestions I will use for a later edit.

With or without your permission I’d like to copy the haunting Robert Hayden poem you included in your email:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

I love you, mama.

Booger Nights

January 25, 2010

Warning:  This story contains graphic images of boogers that may not be appropriate for older readers.

When I Was A Caveman

My mother didn’t find the boogers for years.

I had forgotten about them by then, those now fossilized chunks and smears littering the underside of our old green TV couch in the den.  It was as if mama had uncovered the remains of fire and bones in an ancient cave, or pictures of hunters spearing bison.  The struggles of the Mucolithic Era were murky and internal.


After 4th grade, my three best friends transferred to other schools.  Now I walked home alone through the pale, smoggy afternoons of North Hollywood in winter.  To keep myself company, I counted.  16 blocks to home.  From 24 to 78 slabs of sidewalk concrete per block.  1.25 strides per slab.

I sorted U.S. Presidents by first name, by last name, by party.  Twice two is four.  Twice four is eight.  16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512…  Did the Democratic-Republican Presidents like Jefferson and Madison count as Democrats or Republicans?  If a sidewalk slab is cracked all the way across, does it count as two slabs?  No, just one.  Yes, actually, two.  512 times two is 1024.  Times two is 2048.  The eighth President was Jackson – no, Van Buren.  Grover Cleveland was both 22nd and 24th?  That’s so stupid.  He’s one guy – 22nd with a hiccup in the middle.  Now I have to subtract one from all of the later Presidents.

Walking into our house I could put this all away, to finish tomorrow.  Drop the backpack, drop the counting.  Pour the Cheerios, float them with milk, schuss the sugar down the side of the bowl into the cereal swamp.  Then I’d burrow into the couch to read and eat.

When the food was gone, the boogers came out.  Usually by the fourth bowl of cereal it would be time for the Afterschool Special, or a Brady Bunch rerun, and I would flip onto my stomach to watch.  No need to count.  Just mindlessly pull out the biggest booger I could find and admire it for a moment.  Then I’d wipe it on the underside of the couch, a place as hidden and permanent as the underside of the floorboards.


My mother called me into the den that Saturday morning, as I was about to drive with Larry to the church parking lot on Mulholland Drive to get stoned.   The shrillness in her voice made me check my pockets to make sure she had not found my stash.

When I walked into the den, she stood by the couch she had tipped on its side to clean.  Frozen boogers littered the bottom like corpses after a battle.

She said, “Do you know how many pieces of snot you left here?”  I couldn’t begin to count them.

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