Sunday, October 31, 2004

September, 1967

In the weak sunlight of fall, a picture embraces two young boys, ages 10 and 11. They are squinting into a camera lens composing a picture that looks posed, as if someone had asked them to turn, and smile. The neatly pressed chinos, the Perry Como sweaters (identical of course, save for their color) and a pair of $5.00 haircuts with cowlicks dutifully packed down with a Vitalis-patina, freeze a moment that could easily be a whole other universe for me today.

Joey and I were sitting atop identical red Huffy bicycles, preparing to go to school. It is fall in the photo, but it is hard to tell. Growing up outside of New York City, Fall (we didn’t call it “Autumn”) simply meant less time to play outside and awaiting the start of a new school year.

Today the colors of Autumn sustain me and I realize that I have since gravitated to a geography that nourishes me. How, I think, did I survive this dearth? The answer is that I found, as we all do, beauty in other things. I struggle now to recall exactly what I found it, but no one lives without beauty.

Joey and I were born almost exactly one year apart, off by 5 days, very nearly “Irish Twins”. Being born in such close birth order proximity entitled us, and still does to this day, to certain twin-like privileges. While we never engaged in “twin-speech”, we have had our share of “fratra-pathic” moments.

Like the time we played basketball at the local “Y”, teamed up in a two-on-two against a pair of local and more talented youth. Now, you have to understand that street-ball is part sport, part Kabuki theater and Joey and I played our parts, and fulfilled the rituals.

We were making passes no one could even see. For us, it was just the way we played, the way we thought, the way we saw things with a common filter on the lens of life.

“Wow!” said the leader of our two opponents. “You guys been playing long together?”

“About 25 years,” I responded.

If I glance at the picture again, I notice the bicycles. I rode my bicycle everywhere. I didn’t get a car until I was a sophomore in college. In part, I didn’t really need one living in New York. But in part, I had my bike.

A few years ago I rediscovered my love of cycling, but it had matured along with me. Now I do as much cycling as I can in the shortened New England season. Back then the bicycle was a way to achieve independence at a low cost. It still provides that feeling today, but for a different reason.

On a bicycle, I experience distance as a meditation. Thoughts are clearer, passion is more vivid, memory is more pristine than at any other time during my waking life. (Only dreaming surpasses this.)

On a bicycle, I can be alone and never lonely, even at times in my life when I am more lonely even when surrounded by others. The most misanthropic feelings in me evaporate like a summer puddle when I ride.

Now I suppose there are physiological reasons for this: endorphins, brain chemistry. But the thrill of using my own power to travel from here to Vermont, or tearing down a mountain road at 45 miles per hour, knowing I am just on this side and ½” of rubber away from the unimaginable, is really just like witnessing a sunrise to me; every bit as unique and transcendent.

Five years after rediscovering cycling, I have logged over nearly 15,000 miles. It occurs to me that not all distance is linear and that the inward travel has far exceeded the outward. Like meeting an old friend, the bike has become an extension of my youth, and of me.

Along the side of the photo is the date: Sept 1967. It occurs to me that a few years prior to this snapshot being taken, the Beatles had finished their first tour of the U.S. There was passion in a world yet undiscovered, even after JFK was assassinated. There was Ed Sullivan, and watching the old black and white TV and falling in love with them and their music.

I realize that this photo captured my youth steeped in the early morning angled sun like a used tea bag. The white picket fence and the modestly trimmed azalea bushes in the back screamed that everything was laid out before us and was available to us.

As we slipped our leather satchel school bags over the high rise handlebars, rolled our chinos pant legs up on the chain-side of the bicycle, we pushed off from the curb never once even dreaming of what we were leaving behind.

MB 2004

Saturday, October 30, 2004

POEM - A Confluence of Goodness

Let's strip away the colors
from the hills -
the indulgent gold;
the grounded brown;
and hunter's orange;

Let's use it
to dress ourselves up!

Let's dress up in the tones
of things that end.

We've picked up the juiciest of apples
and held it aloft over our heads
and over our hearts -

We've dared to take the largest bite,
unhinge our jaws like a snake,
and swallow it whole;

Look at how the shy mountains
undress for us,
revealing what is beneath!

Look at how our hands are held out
flat and upward and towards each other,
offering what it is we believe
that we are giving up!

And we are naked all the while
pouring this re-awakening
over each other like dawn light;
wrapped and held hostage
for a ransom of love
to what we are about to become.

MB 2004


Things should be called what they are. This is why I have never been able to understand the idea of wind chill factors. What is it that meteorologists are trying to measure? (And incidentally, why isn't meteorology the study of meteors?)

The basic idea is that they are trying to factor in the wind when combined with the cold air to give you a sense of how cold it really feels, but to whom? And isn't wind velocity ample enough measurement of the wind?

It seems to me that meteorologists are trying to get me feel something I may not feel or worse, they are trying to tell me how to feel, all in the name of "science" and public safety. Isn't temperature supposed to be the objective measurement so that we can do away with the hyperventilating form of relativism?

Has the doctor ever, once, taken your temperature and told you, "It's 98.6 but that really feels like 104 to a person of your age." I didn't think so.

I would suggest that wind chill is like the countless influenza stories we heard last winter: stories that lead each news hour, designed to drum up a frothy mix of worry on what would otherwise be a pretty plain scientific explanation of grade school type of data. It's pretty hard to keep "Mom-and-Pop Six Pack" up at 11:00 PM when the weather comes on without making the weather just a bit edgier thanks to wind chill factors. The wind chill factor makes weather seem so much more dangerous.

But consider how silly this really is: it would be like giving a sports score of a blow out game then saying that the score really "felt" like it was a lot closer. Seems like a con, doesn't it?

"Hey, I was at the game, buddy, and I left at the half! Don't tell me it felt like a better game than it was," we would yell at the TV.

The fact is, water still freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100 degrees Celsius, and no amount of wind chill factor will alter the physics of this. Wind chill attempts to glamorize the last thing on this planet that everyone talks about, but no one does anything about: at least until now, with the advent of the wind chill factor.

Aristotle wrote of the three things that make up a compelling story: place, action and character. Were he alive today, I am certain he would add the wind chill factor.

It's not that wind chill is pseudo-science, but that it attempts to make something subjective, namely how something feels, into something objective and measurable. Put another way, it takes attempts to make us worry and perhaps even surrender to the notion that we can experience the cold without actually needing to experience it. Had we wanted a "feels-like" scale to inform us of what to wear for the day, why not just switch to something like: "It's pretty freakin' hot out there" or "It's cold enough to freeze the kids I don't even have yet." Something more colorful, at least. You get the picture.

Science measures temperatures with a variety of scales but these scales are always based on some physical measurement. The movement of some heavy metal in a small cylindrical tube brought about by the ambient temperature surrounding the tube. Absolute zero is the theoretical lowest temperature at which all molecules stop. (This makes me wonder what the opposite of absolute zero is? Is it absolute boiling; that point when molecules are in a hyper-kinetic state moving at ever increasing speeds towards the speed of light when - according to Einstein - time would slow down. And if time does slow down on a molecular level within our bodies, would that mean we would never age?)

We measure time too among other species with the same sort of ambiguity as we treat the weather. Dogs age seven years for every one of ours. Does this mean that as human life expectancy increases, a dogs does as well? And who decides that?

I understand that this is a way to level the playing field between species: not all creatures live the same number of years, so it does provide some sort of common ground. Certain bugs, for example, may live only one day. Imagine! A bug who was born at 8:00AM would be middle aged by noon. Dead by midnight, perhaps. Seems like there's hardly enough time to divorce the wife, buy a Harley and go cross country, get a tattoo and some piercings, quit his job as an accountant and sign up for open poetry reading nights at local coffee houses.

All in all, wind chill is emblematic of the modern sensibility which wants to make us feel something, which ultimately is a personal experience. I guess I am just jaded when it comes to the weather because of this fact. As it is, I cannot now trust the rest of the news, so I at least expect the weather person to give it to me straight!

There is a perfectly good scale to measure how cold it is outside. I don't need to lose any more sleep, with the Flu outbreaks, terrorism, child abductions, anthrax and sniper killings all on the rise it seems.

Please, leave me the weather, and skip the wind chill factor. By my reckoning, this piece is a just around 900 words. Of course, had I written this in Old English, it probably would have felt like 9,000 words.

MB 2004

Anna The Carrot

The day woke ready for Anna but Anna was not at all ready for it. Her first sensation was one of being upright and feeling as though her arms, legs and feet were bound. She noticed a lock of green hair in her eyes and despite being groggy from sleep, she noticed she was decidedly outdoors.

Anna worked in a SoHo bookstore while she attended the NYU graduate program studying Ethnoherpatology: the study of behavioral differences among snakes of varying regions of the world. She worked hard, had little social life, paid her taxes, returned her library books on time, called her mom and dad on Long Island every weekend. But today, Anna was a wild carrot.

Anna did not know this at first, of course. She could look down into the dirt, where her nose would have been, and see enough of herself to know that her skin was orange. When the wind blew, she saw that her green hair was really just the top sprout one associates with a carrot. She scoured the ground, or at least as much as her field of vision would allow, for being a carrot, she could not twist left or right very much at all.

“H-how did I get here?” These were her first words as a carrot.
“How do any of us really get here?” the deep baritone voice boomed from a few any hills away. It was Karl, a hosta plant. He was a thinker who often sat as motionless as a hosta could and pondered the great mysteries of the universe.

“Beg pardon?” Anna was nothing if not polite.

“I mean, where do any of us come from? It’s a crap shoot at best that of all the planets circling all the solar systems in all of the galaxies among the many universes, that ours would be the only one that could support life and such a variety of life as this.”
“I’m sorry, you are?”

Karl was philosophizing. He would not be deterred.

“Of course, there was Einstein who once said ‘there are no coincidences, God does not play craps with the universe’ And then there was Newton.”

“Newton?” Anna was confused.

“Gravity? Created calculus? Apple falling from the tree? Ring any bells?” Karl was just being snotty now.

“And you are?” Anna felt very uncomfortable not being able to move. She tried to twist, tried to move where her hands would be, but there was nothing. She did have the strangest sensation that her hair kept moving in the direction of the sunlight.

“Karl”, the hosta announced. “My name is Karl.”

“How long have I been like this?” Anna asked.
“What, stupid?” Karl was just being annoying now.
“Been a carrot,” Anna replied just being annoyed now.
“I don’t know who I am,” said Anna, hoping to evoke some sort of sympathy.

“Who does?” Karl responded, “Isn’t this the great journey of life?”
Anna could not help herself. “Now stop that!” she snapped.

“How about we discuss Moore’s law as it relates to technology vis-à-vis Darwin’s premise of natural selection?” Karl offered, ignoring Anna.

Anna didn’t know how to feel. Yesterday she was peddling her bike uptown from her lower West Side flat to go to school and today here she was discussing Moore’s law with a hosta plant. She had determined soon that she wanted to cry.

Suddenly, into her field of view (for she was a carrot after all and as such she could not twist around) she spied a group of carpenter ants toddling by. They were clearly in conversation, paying no attention to Anna or Karl.

“Hello!” Anna called out. “You there, ants. Hello!”
“Hello there carrot, what’s up doc?” said the leader, a large black ant named Karen. They all giggled at the obvious joke.

“My name is Anna,” she said, “and I need help.”
“Mine is Karen,” said the lead ant. With this, the entire group all droned as if instructed on cue. “Hi Karen!”

“We’re on our way to our 12-step program,” Karen informed Anna. “Would you like to come? You know, you gotta wanna, right?” and all the ants nodded and murmured approval.

“No, see that is not the kind of help I need,” Anna replied trying hard not to sound too desperate. Then it hit her.

“12-step program? 12-step program for what?” Anna asked Karen.

“Why, for 12-step programs, of course,” Karen responded.
“Let’s make her go,” said one of the other ants, and then they all became agitated and chanted, “Yes, yes, make her go.”

“Now, now,” chastised Karen, “remember, attraction not promotion,” to which all the other ants quieted down, “Yes, she’s right, of course she’s right. What would we do without Karen?” they all muttered.

Anna could not believe what she was hearing.

“No, thank you.” She was still trying very hard to be polite. “Actually, I wanted to know how I got here.” But before she could finish her sentence Karen started with her testimony.

“Honey, we all get here the same way, through the gutter. We only get through it with the grace of our higher power – however you envision it to be – and each other.”
“No! No! That is not what I mean at all,” Anna was frantic with frustration.

“Every journey starts with a single step,” Karen threw out, and the other ants cheerfully rejoined, “Oh yes, so true so true.”

Then one by one each of the carpenter ants stood on a nearby root and began telling their horrid little tales of how they could not go a day without having to attend one of these meetings.

Anna tuned out, wanting so much to cry, but afraid it would only bring her more trouble.

Meanwhile, Karl was still carrying on a conversation about whether or not Malthusian economic theory and communism as practiced in the 1930’s and 1940’s could possibly have common origins.

Anna finally let go and started to cry, just slowly at first.

She didn’t want to be a carrot. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a grad student at NYU but she’d clearly take that over this any day.

Then a little sow bug came ambling into view.

“’Scuse me. Beg pardon. You tawkin’ to me? Hey knock it off.”

Anna had no idea to whom this little bug was talking.

“Hey sow bug!” Anna tried to get his attention. There were two large Day Lilies that just looked the other way when she called the sow bug over. (Day Lilies can be like that, you know.)
“Benny!” the bug called out.
“What?” Anna wasn’t paying attention.
“Benny is the name. You gonna eat that?” Benny turned to a small snail crawling by, nibbling on some mold spore. Then he turned to Karl.

“You tawkin’ to me? You want a piece-a-me buddy?”
Back to Anna:
“You’ll have to forgive me…”
Back to the Ants:
“Ladies would you like an escort to your meeting?”
Now to a crow, who was pulling up some string he was going to use for his nest:
“You gonna use all that, fella, cause I gotta tell ya I can really use some of that…”

Anna shrieked Benny’s name. It was all she could do to get the sow bug’s attention. This did the trick. Everyone became quiet.
Benny looked at Anna with downcast, eyes, or at least as downcast as a sow bug can make.
“Sorry lady,” he said. “See I’m ADHD and I… “
Now to Karl: “Okay, put up your tendrils…I’ve had it with you.”

Nearby, a Fiddlehead fern was just beginning to stretch and start the day. She’d heard all the commotion and saw Anna looking very, very sad.
“Hey sister, what gives?” Anna saw Bernadette the Fern unrolling her bright lime green stem, almost yawn-like as though she were stretching to greet the morning.

Anna told Bernadette her problem: how she had gone to sleep last night and it was a night like any other; how she would be late for school and she had midterms; how she needed help. Bernadette listened but offered little help.
Bernadette considered a moment asking Anna what exactly a midterm was, but she resisted the temptation. Instead, she proceeded in a most officious capacity.
“Well, I think we should study the situation.”
“What do you need to study?” asked Anna incredulous.
“Why the impact to our area if you were to leave of course. And then there is the issue of who would claim your spot once you were vacated. And come to think of it, we need to investigate if you entered this garden illegally. Do you have papers? How do we know you are not some sort of terrorist or criminal weed like those Skunk Cabbage that moved in last year, or those hurtful, stingy nettles that moved here last month. They were no picnic I can tell you.”

Anna tried to work with Bernadette, for it seemed to Anna that she seemed to know things. But it was very difficult.
“How long will a study take?” Anna asked timidly, fearing the answer.
“Oh, if we get everyone’s cooperation, which is rare, honey, let me tell you, I’d say about a year.”

Anna was numb. Bernadette continued.

”I’ve seen these things drag on for longer, believe me. What with the hearings, then the postings of the findings, and of course we need a public forum to discuss the results.”

Anna’s mind dashed off to consider how plants gather to have a public meeting to discuss her situation.

“But a year…yes a year should cover most circumstances.”
Anna was getting a headache, but she realized since she was a carrot, she had no head. Still, where her head was, hurt as though a hammer was pounding on it. What she wouldn’t give for someone to mix up a little aspirin into a Miracle Gro dispenser and dowse her sprout top, which continually flopped from one side of her to the other.

From an old oak tree whose shade was now beginning to touch Anna as the sun lifted the day, some dark, spongy moss hung. Its named was Marvin. Marvin hung around the north side of the oak and pretty much threw out the most depressing observations about life for all to hear. Most of the other plants just ignored Marvin, but Anna didn’t know any better. Anna’s plight only brought Marvin pleasure, so much so, in fact, that Anna could swear he was smiling.
“What are you so happy about?” Her tone was angry as Marvin just hung there swaying gently in the breeze, the bulk of his mossy body wedged deeply into the bark of the tree.
“I’m not happy. It’s just good to see the world handing out its comeuppance on some other loser who has stepped up to the craps table of life.”
Anna wondered how moss could know anything about craps but the thought passed quickly. Things were serious and she needed to focus now.

“What have I done to deserve this?” Anna asked.
“Ah, none of us has done anything to deserve the backhand life gives us. We are born into a giant onion of misery. As we peel off one layer of misery, what is lying beneath? Yet another layer of muck and hurt and pain waiting to serve itself up to the next customer who believes this life is anything more than what it is.”
“And what is that? Just what is it that life is?” Anna had to know. She also considered moss making an onion analogy particularly clever. Again, she chastened herself to stay focused.
“Life is nothing but heartbreak and disaster. It holds all the promise of a bright shiny new day, but then pulls it back just when your hopes are the highest, and laughs at you right in your face. It pushes you down in the mud. Then steps on your back in case you had any idea of getting up and starting over.”
Anna became gloomy just listening. She began to weep. She’d had it.

“Look at that, a self watering tuber…” Benny said.
In between sobs Anna corrected him, for she was a grad student at NYU after all, “A carrot… sniff sniff… is not…sniff sniff… a tuber…”

Finally Karl, who by this time stopped talking, told everyone to shut up. None of them knew what to make of Anna’s crying. But Karl knew lots of things. He knew that when a carrot starts to sob that hard that there is no pulling oneself up by one’s bootstrap from that point to bring her around. He resolved to help her.

“You know the answer you really want, don’t you Anna?” Karl said gently, almost compassionately. He was not making fun of her for being stupid or an NYU grad student. For the very first time since this day had started, Anna began to feel hope.

“You want to know how to get back to where you really belong, don’t you?”
“Yes”, she sniffled. “Please. Thank you.” Through all this, Anna was still polite.
“I can help you. Would you like that?”

If Anna had arms she would have hugged Karl. If she had lips she would have kissed him. Anna gathered herself the best she could and calmly said, “Yes. Yes I would like that very much. I would be forever in your debt.”

As Karl respired inward to grab a breath to tell Anna what she needed to do to return to the way she was, there was a sudden movement that caught everyone, Karl, Marvin, Karen, even Benny who was staring at some fireflies that had fluttered by and distracted him. Anna suddenly felt her whole body lifting upward. Dirt peeled away from her sides and if she looked down she could see her whole body now. She could see the little feeder roots that strung off her large, wrinkled orange body. She looked down and only saw Karl get smaller and smaller until eventually, all she could see was the blue sky, some white cotton like clouds that hovered overhead. Occasionally some birds flew over and she would note their speed and type for only a moment. Soon, she could feel the sun on her whole body. She felt fully exposed to the elements.

Anna was eaten later that evening, smothered in pot roast gravy by a little girl with red pig-tails.

Anna was delicious.

MB 2004

Three Words

The signs first appeared almost birdlike from the bushes as Carly sped past them. The trees and chain link fences slurred into a soupy mix in her driver side window like a heavy rain down the windshield.

"PLEASE" it read.

The heart shaped vermillion sign stood out, perhaps because it was so bright or perhaps because it was St. Valentines Day.

"DON'T" read the next word, a short way further. In between was the latex layer of road noise.

"LEAVE". That was it. The road signs resumed their commonness after that.

Basting in the grey winter morning, three words, separated on a traveled yet today, unfamiliar road, pock-marked Carly's routine to the office. It punctuated the monotonous drive, the stress of the day, the daily global wars in which we engage while pursing the middle class dream.

Carly's emotional ears picked up the way a dog's ears pick up when he hears his master's car still miles away.

There are those for whom Valentines Day is a trite, contrived holiday; a holiday with a sordid history of Claudius the Cruel beating and beheading St. Valentine during the infant days of Christianity. This was in place of the pagan festival of Lupercalia, which honored the goddess Juno Februata. This festival celebrated a theology of lascivious eroticism, now considered barbaric. Those early Christians really knew how to party.

Who would have foreseen that a millennia later all the color of the holiday would be sucked out of it, replaced instead with the obsession of market segmentation: the card segment, the candy segment, the flowers segment.

Carly was a romantic though she forced herself to close her eyes or look the other way whenever her heart wanted to soar. She could deny things to others, but alone, at the end of the day, or when the moon would wink its ghostly crescent smile at her, begging her to make one wish, just one wish, Carly
filled out like one of those balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Still, the suddenness of these words, appearing out of nowhere startled her. There was desperation in the action, yet it brimmed with a sanguine faith in the power of words. These signs were nailed to posts, frail and exposed, far enough apart to create anticipation. “In what air does this sort of hope breathe?” Carly wondered.

She tried to imagine the scenario.

Perhaps they’d had a fight, she thought, and this was his way of making up. Her heart waded into a pool of memory, recalling those times in her own relationships that warranted such corrective action.

Relationships were all about starting and stopping then starting again anyhow. Sometimes Carly thought that love was a roulette ball, landing on whichever color and number it felt like. It is not enough, she would say to friends, to be a good lover, or a good person, to be fully actualized or enlightened, or engaged with her past Jungian archetypes. (Carly spent a lot of time in the Self Help section of the Barnes and Noble book stores.) Sometimes, there were physics completely unseen at work.

Carly puzzled over the kind of physics that would drive a man (or woman) to risk public humiliation, to acknowledge to anyone who could read and drive, to expose oneself, just to restore a relationship that might not, at its core even be alive.

She wondered had it been a messy argument? Were there hurtful things said? The kinds of things that get tossed out in the middle of a free for all, when you are looking for something, anything, to toss at the other person; like hurling a fishing lure, hoping the other takes the bait. Then the fight ensues.

There are those hurts that are open gaping sores that beg for bandages. Then there are those that do its damage from the inside out, in subtle ways, slowly, with intent and measure.

She recalled her fights with past lovers and wondered if it had been like that, unaware of her own self measuring to see if she fit into the parameters of normal grief and misery.

From a hospital room, Dan wondered if Sheila had even seen the signs he put up just last night. When he started the day yesterday, she was mobile, and this was to be a Valentine Day sparkler, a public service announcement about his love for Sheila.

Late last night her lungs began to fill with fluid and she couldn’t breathe. He called 911 and they rushed her, along this road, to the hospital.

The words were not poetry. Dan was no poet, except in the way he felt for Sheila. Three words. The words were all he could think of. They were prayer, though he was too agnostic as he watched her struggle through the night on a respirator to know this then.

He packed his love into these words, like a man packing to move, with the same sense of purpose.

Three words: a wish for life before AIDS. A plea for sanity.

Carly turned into the parking lot at work. Certainly, this would be fodder for discussion in the lunchroom, the speculation about the loss and what it means to each of them.

MB 2004

Three Degrees

Kevin Johansen picked up the Smith and Wesson “Saturday Night Special”, and placed the business end of it into his mouth. He paused only long enough to consider the serenity – like nothing he had ever known – balanced with grace on the hair trigger of the gun, of his finger. He considered the brand new quart of milk unopened in his refrigerator. Ensconced in this mental landscape, he pulled the trigger.

A few days later the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran the obituary: “Kevin Johansen, 42, survived by Simon Johansen of New York, Genevieve Olsen of Flat Rock, Colorado, Pete (Petey) Johansen of Minneapolis. Donations to Minneapolis-St.Paul Halfway House in lieu of flowers.”

There, in a 1 inch by 2 inch square of copy, nestled neatly between the want ads and personals, between job seekers and men seeking women seeking men, lay a man’s remains.

When Sam, Petey’s foster dad, first heard the news, he wondered how he should tell Petey about his brother. Petey was a low functioning autistic. At age 5 he was able to read aloud from the Sunday New York Times. Petey’s mom thought he was going to be a great writer some day.

Sam approached Petey who jerked his head in a random motion. His hands twitched raggedly. He had pulled large clumps of his hair from his head, and he would squeal loudly whenever he became upset or nervous. Sam sat Petey down making sure to make eye contact as much as he could. Petey would not, could not look at Sam as he was told the news.

He tried to be gentle but just wasn’t sure Petey understood anything. Petey just picked a scab and made no indication that he understood anything. Instead, he stared at a globe that he spun faster and faster. Sam eventually grew quiet.

Simon Johansen was one of the best corporate lawyers for Sony Corporation America which was headquartered in New York. It was he who made the arrangements for the body, the obituary, calling Sam asking him to tell Petey. It was he who called Genevieve to tell her. Gen was ready to deliver her third baby so he even had the presence of mind to talk to her doctor first to see if she thought the news would cause a problem for her delivery.

Simon bought plane tickets for Gen and Petey, arranged the wake and the burial. By all accounts, Simon took care of everything when Kevin died. He even asked that the coroner’s report be sent to him only and no one else in the family. He spoke with the priest who came to the funeral home to tell him some things about Kevin; how Kevin always had good things to say about people; what a hard worker he was and had it not been for his unfortunate addiction to heroin he might have actually been a decent artist.

Simon told the funeral director that he would have to call his sister for pictures, since she had them all. Besides, except for Petey and Kevin, they had no family in the Twin Cities any more. It would be a sparsely attended wake.

When Gen’s husband broke the news to his wife, her water had already broken. She was already in the hospital, but the labor had not progressed as her doctor had hoped. Gen was an hour away from a pitocin drip to induce her, but when she heard about Kevin, the grief worked better than any drug ever could.

She buried her face, blank with disbelief, heaved her large, swollen body, and shook the cut-away hospital bed violently. Gen squeezed the sheets, convulsing from grief in between spasmodic heaves of an unyielding sense of loss.

There were letters at home on her desk addressed to Kevin, unstamped, now, never to be mailed. They corresponded often, or as often as Kevin would respond. She sent him money when he needed it, and he wrote of visiting after the baby was born.

The anger, frustration and disbelief choked Gen, which she would wear like a noose around her neck forever, she believed. Soon, blame washed over her like the ocean. There was so much to go around, to be sure, but ultimately, the largest chunk landed with both feet square on her chest, like one of those lead x-ray aprons.

Whatever forces were at work filled the room like a whisper; things that were not dilated a few hours earlier were now fully dilated. Things that were not effaced a few hours earlier were now fully effaced. The baby had turned, almost as if to make a grand swan dive down the birth canal.

In four more hours, a baby boy would greet a world awash in grief, to a mother who had been pulled apart like a wishbone. When the doctor asked the baby’s name, Gen, sweating and sleepless, physically pushed over an edge she had never imagined, could only utter: “Anything but ‘Kevin’.”

MB 2004

The Day The Sky Went Away

Positioned on the rusted automobile, emily nestled her head in my lap as we watched the thick humid sky - surrounded by green of new summer wash of growth - watching a gaggle of military jets fly by. The base was nearby so - just over the mountain - as this was a common sight, though these birds were odd. Silver fluted radar dishes dangled from their underbellies as they streaked in unison over the mountain, trimming the trees.

Squinting we watched as from behind us a new sound ripped the mountainous white vapory sponge that hung in the sky. A seaplane skimmed over the horizon, wheels like eagle talons threatening to knock us both senseless. We covered our ears thinking how odd this plane was so low.

From behind, like from behind a shadow, out over the mountain the behemouth silver, phallic, sleek stream of pure technology cut like a shark over the trees - carrying a hurricane in its own presence, bellowing belching jet fumes, pushing the air around us like a Greek tragedy, it consumed its own path. Out of nowhere, it narrowly avoided the seaplane and we could then make out that it was some type of cargo plane. Large and pregnant with materiel, with girth, like a redwood with wings; it didn't fly as much as crawled, belly-like, snake-like, against the lackluster silver painted sky.

Roaring gasping gulping air it began to climb. Slowly, drearily, reluctantly trying to loop-the-loop, yet so close to the ground I knew at once it would never pull up in time. It flopped backwards, running out of space, time, and grace, it threw its own self like a flapjack on a griddle cracked into the block one over from mine.

Instinctively I dove on emily, knowing the shockwave would be intense. The heat licked us all over like a cat tongue, roughing us up, cutting searing lung tissue like a sun, blowing us back. Then the wind fierce teeth-like grasp on my skin, pouring back hair, eyes, face. I covered emily not thinking anything - just reacting like plants to sunlight.
After the blast, the smoke, the fire, the wind - the mini-apocolypse in my mind - it rained objects that I had not ever expected. Band-aids fluttered like maple tree seedlings, jars of vaseline colored the most Bahaman aqua blue, then tiles from scrabble games, dropping letters consonants and vowels, "Q"'s and "Z"'s and "X"s alike. Finally, little momentos fell from the sky - knick-knacy things really; silver, pewter figurines, commemorating some event, some loss, some friendship, some time. Dropping dropping - clicking down like hail - like animal claws on tile, a clean, harsh sound ---

At this point a neighbor pulled up - not being home -- seeing what looked like armageddon, began to openly weep; and it made me weep to see the shards of lives all over; the smoke, the loss of everything embossed on these tiny things seeded all over the ground.

I turned to Emily and instructed her dutifully, that if she found any body parts to come tell me and not to touch them… body parts… there must have rained body parts… I knew they were there, but I did not see them descend. I knew they were there, though.

MB 2000

Flight Of Fancy

It began with an orgasm.

Not some eyelash-light, frilly, polite orgasm but a full throated, fist clenching eye rolling, guttural passage to someplace else. The kind you only read about. One that makes you aware of your soul as it surrounds your body like wearing a baggy suit that barely touches your skin ever so delicately. It is a heightened feeling of the physical through something so intangible. Like nothing man made, that is certain.

Hands always held a special meaning to Ellie. They were the first tools of homosapiens – the ever versatile opposable thumb which gave humans the capability to grasp and hold. Ellie often sat and wondered what her hands said to people. She believed when people shook hands, it said something to the other person – besides “hi, how are you?” she believed the action of shaking hands gave a whole history lesson of that person.

So when the hands reached across and fastened the belts across her chest, she felt reassured. These were friendly, though disassociated hands probing and checking, making certain she was secure. In the middle of a clearing she had only heard of but never seen, she eased back into the chair waiting for whatever would happen next.

The cloud of stars poured over her like milk over black velour of the cold country sky. She looked up and made a wish on a billion stars. The chair slowly ascended, like an elevator. In a moment she was pressed back into the chair fighting the initial motion sickness. She wanted to close her eyes, but couldn’t. Ellie could see the undulating hills and sharp treetops and the roof of her house as she continued to climb. The chair accelerated into the night with the purpose of lust and though totally alone, she felt at ease and had a feeling one has among friends.

Floating now on the shores of space, though bound, she felt weightless. Somehow in the vacuum of space, she could breathe and wondered how this could be. (Perhaps, like a fish, she could absorb air and convert oxygen on a molecular level from other sources of matter.) Reason had fled for some other dimension, of this she was certain.

The charm that her dying father had given her was floating semi-motionless about her eyes as the chair rattled spasmodically. Above, in the distance, Ellie could see the bright object that appeared like a headlight. Like a magnet, she felt herself being pulled toward it. “Ellie! Ellie!” she thought she heard. Mesmerized yet with a heightened sense of something emotions, she felt herself at the entrance of something larger than anything she could have ever imagined. The size of this entrance pressed against her like summer heat.

Still fastened to the chair, she began to slide into this hole, and had a feeling of a downward motion. This movement triggered memories of her as a little girl sliding down a playground slide though she had no sensation of losing her stomach, as slides tended to do. The chair and Ellie accelerated almost instantly defying all known laws of inertia and physics.

Reds, oranges, blues and greens streamed past her like train stations on a moving train. Ellie was flying now, rattling through the hole with a recklessness she had never experienced. As she did this, her skin began to tingle and feel like latex. Her nerve endings seemed to poke through her skin and she could feel them swaying to the shifts in her body’s momentum. Before long, the feeling of arousal surrounded her like her own body heat beneath a blanket. Her muscles twitched with a pleasure which she had not known was possible. It felt like drawing some smooth fine fabric across her lips or cheeks.

As her body moved, her sense of pleasure intensified. This feeling of sex pulsed from within; these feelings rose up like the mercury in a thermometer. This was not a woman in the throes of normal passion. There was something primal, humid and liberating going on, emanating from her spirit. It manifested itself as something outside of herself, outside of who she believed herself to be. She was so devoid of self and evil as much as she was devoid of goodness. This was not a moral or immoral act – this was pleasure being squeezed from some place deep within until it extruded from her like squeezing a sponge.

Her body was moving spasmodically and Ellie was aware that she was sexually alive now. She was someplace for which she had never ever seen the road signs before. Like the great explorers she was forging a new map, and stood on new land.

Intense, yet relaxed, freeing she craved nothing. She wanted nothing. Her breathing was a low rhapsodic grunt and she shimmered as the power of lust washed over her like a shower. From one wormhole to another, she was dragged always climbing yet never reaching the top, never feeling fatigued or that she wanted it to stop; feeling continually reenergized.

Ellie was poured into the present like water so vividly and so perfectly she almost laughed – oddly reminding her of Woody Allen’s famous line about sex being as much fun as you can have without actually laughing.

With a violence and a mercilessness only seen during times of war, the sandpaper sound of the alarm stopped the ride, though not all at once. Awake, she was in that place before you are fully aware of exactly where you are, when dreams play tag with and tease the real world . Her body could not clearly distinguish in which domain she occupied space.

Shaky and weak, but as alert and alive as ever before, Ellie was in the presence of a force that larger than any she had ever known. She knew this intuitively. She felt stronger than 10 women and felt she could lift the large amorphous mass of blankets that was Garrett lying next to her. He never stirred before 8:00 on a weekend. Ellie was left more awake than asleep and her very first thought was, “Wow, that was good for me. Was that good for me?” She giggled, amused at her own cleverness. Garrett ripped a thunder clap kind of snore that seemed to come from nowhere into nowhere.

It separated the worlds for Ellie, the way Yahweh’s voice split the curtain covering the Ark of the Covenant for the Hebrews. Ellie was fully awake now. She rolled over and stared at the peeling off white paint of the ceiling and had a grin as large as the horizon. “I just made love to the whole universe,” Ellie thought. She felt bewildered and just a bit blessed. She now turned and watched the glowing digits of her alarm clock radio and watched the numbers turn minute by minute. She listened to the gradually slowing sound of her own pulse in her ears with the pillow pushed up against her head. Every so often, Garrett would mutter about someone being an asshole and throw off her count so she’d have to start again.

The memory and feelings of her dream spread over her like marmalade over warm toast. A part of her wanted frantically to go back to sleep and finish the journey through the wormholes. How could she just get up and make coffee now? How could she get up, throw on her oversized UMASS sweatshirt and penguin slippers, take out the compost and pretend this didn’t happen? The thought saddened her. Choices haunted Ellie at every turn and this was no different. Then the thought occurred to her that hadn’t yet: had she cheated on Garrett? Had she been unfaithful to her boyfriend of 7 years with another woman: herself?

MB 2003

No Man's Land

In his 48th year of life his organs simply began to wear out. Threadbare, raggedy, frayed around the edges, they were bursting like an overstuffed child’s toy. The exertion caused his insides to bleed, ever so slightly. They bled enough to make his charity ride to raise money for a cure for cancer miserable.

When the pain did not subside days later, he took his worn out body to the emergency room where the doctors tested his patience with marathon waiting sessions. When the ultrasound technician came over and told him she did not have good news, he tugged on one of his ears, as though he was not sure of what he heard. The smile on his blood-drained face was now frozen in a polite posture hiding the disbelief. There was something on the picture, she told him. They needed more tests. They needed an MRI.

More days would pass and a gaggle of doctors would look at all sorts of pictures of his insides. There were blood tumors on his liver – benign – but most likely responsible for the bleeding and the pain during the ride.

Then there were the kidneys. That spot 1 centimeter and round; too small to biopsy. The gaggle of doctors needed more pictures. While waiting, his wife stood at the gaping maw of the MRI and they talked in hospital tones. When the technician left the room, his wife pulled out a small medal of the Blessed Virgin given to her by a friend. She opened her fingers slowly at first then uncurled her fingers flat. The magnet of the MRI machine whisked the medal out of her hands and into the tube.

“Shit! No! Shit! Shit!” was all she would say. When she told her husband what had happened he giggled.
“Get it out of the machine!” he teased, “Or when they take the pictures the image of the Blessed Virgin will appear on my kidneys! Then the Vatican will be forced to send investigators, and people will come from all over the world to worship my kidneys! I’ll become another Medjagory.”

They laughed. It was a funny thought. For the moment, the lump on his kidney was gone.

When the radiologist report came back it said everything and it said nothing. The words “possible renal carcinoma” stood out as though he’d written them with a pink Day-Glo highlighter on the report. But it also said that it could be some other type of tumor – one that was not cancerous.


It carries all sorts of power; power we are not even aware we possess; power over us and power within us.

He searched the internet that night, staying up until early morning, googling “RENAL CARCINOMA”. He had done this before for others. He realized that when he did this before it was an impassioned attempt at unearthing hope. But as he stared at the mortality statistics it sank in that these numbers were for him. It left a lump in his stomach. The letters just hung on the screen, peering out from the large black CRT screen. The statistics took on a stone-like quality that did not allow his thoughts any movement at all. Not in any direction but the worst.

The fact that this “thing” was discovered while raising money for a cure for cancer did not escape his sense of humor. He was a living example of irony, he told his wife.

Still, words were spilled about like a mop in a bucket. Nephrectemy. Ablation. Metastasis. The words were lead pellets for something that was no more than 1 centimeter in diameter on the lower lobe of his right kidney. There was no diagnosis but plenty of fear. It was a prognosis by default.

If it IS cancer, his thought process went, then it must proceed this way. All the doctors told him: they would simply take his kidney out. Still, it was HIS organ and thoughts of ending his life on dialysis began to paralyze the center of his brain that was responsible for optimism.
There were many things worse than death, he often told his wife. He was not afraid of dying. He was afraid of losing the few things that made his life sublime. Being tied to a machine; not being able to go anywhere overnight without needing to worry about dialysis; forced to focus on inability day in and day out with such an invisible tether.
In the greater picture, there were other things, he knew. There was, at least, life. But what kind of life?

His head of course told him that he was light years from this scenario. Still, the possibility of this alien on his kidney, growing however slowly, on an organ he took good care of, left him uneasy. He could not sleep.

Then the dreams began. He dreamed he was holding his kidney in his hands and it was glowing red. It looked like one of those paintings of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with Jesus smiling demurely and his heart, all aglow in the center of his chest, hands clasped around his heart like he was holding it.

He could not sleep. He woke earlier and earlier each day until he was not even sure if he slept at all. He stared up at the ceiling wondering how he would tell people, if he should tell people. People were very understanding. They all had friends who had friends. They talked about the progress of medicine, and recovery rates. They talked about better doctors and second opinions. No one asked him if he were just the slightest bit afraid. No one. He knew the answer but he did not know how he would have responded had someone asked.

It was not technically cancer, really. It was only maybe cancer. This “peri-cancer” experience was beyond the grasp of anyone who knew the man or his wife. Days would go on as they always have. This was no tragedy. This was just something to get through. Still, it was hard to understand. How could the doctors not know?

The doctors were quick to talk about early detection, great fortune of the discovery, smart medical advocacy and a recovery to a former life maybe even a good life, but certainly not the same life; not an unmarked life. He tossed in bed as the image of the statistic that 3 to 4% of participants would experience growths on remaining kidney danced around in his mind; IF it were cancer.


But “IF” is not a way to live.

That summer, he learned about living in shadows. Not directly in fear, but in that same shadow of fear that gripped him whenever he watched the movie Jaws – that primal fear of being eaten alive.

Sometimes things mark us for life that never even place a hand on us.

He would wait. Time, the greatest diagnostician, would give him an answer. At the very least, it would give him an answer. That’s all anyone deserves, really. How can anyone fight otherwise? How can anyone fight in a no man’s land?

MB 2004


Her honeyed hair hung with abandon down her face, falling around a delicate face like spring rain. The jagged scar beneath her lower lip from the sledding accident she and I were in together a few winters ago was still visible and gave her the look something cracked.

“Daba! Let’s go!”

It was Saturday and I offered Casey the chance to help me do the food shopping. I always went alone, but Casey was of such an age and temperament that she was not to be denied today.

She was the leading forward on her soccer team, scoring more goals than anyone else and I understood why. The ball simply relented under her leaden will the way islands are subsumed by a tsunami. The ball gives up, capitulates and simply surrenders its volition, resigning itself to the safety of the back of the net with complete acquiescence, rather than face the sandpaper grit of her focus, heart and determination.

Casey brushed and ate breakfast quickly and began the review of my grocery list. “Too much fat!” she tsked, shaking her head .

“Yeah, well, I’m not a smoker so I have to even out the coronary statistics some way,” I shot back at her, then pulled the sheet from her grip, walking away to her protests. “Get in the car!” I yelled over my shoulder as she stopped to tie her sneaker, then ambled into the passenger seat.

We drove in the brisk, autumn-angled sunlight. She fiddled with the radio as I began to notice the gangly length of her arms and legs, her tiny face and long curly eyelashes. I recalled her as a premie 12 years ago, with the doll-sized cap and button face. She rarely slept, even then.

We pulled into the supermarket lot and she leaped out of the car, running to grab a shopping cart. I moved to grab one as well which prompted her to cry out, “No, Daba! I have this one. See? The wheels move better!”
Like the soccer ball, I gave in.(Gooooooooaaaaaaaallllll!)

Casey insisted – as she always did; she never suggested, or hinted, she always insisted – that she hold the coupons, the list and steer the cart.

“Peanut, let me at least steer the cart for you!”
“No, Daba, I know the tricks through the aisles. Sherri Rankowicz told me all about the best way to steer these carts. Her dad works in the meat section. I think he’s a butcher or something. So he knows about these carts.”
“Where did you come from?” I muttered just barely audible.

She skipped off unconcerned about traffic, assuming the cars would stop. We got into the store and we followed the list. The list was really a chart made out in the layout of the store. Casey’s mom always did that, to make it easier, she had always said. She had a different sheet for each store in the area.

Casey stopped at the bagels, placing the list, coupons, and money down to quickly pull on the plastic bags on the rollers.

“Now Jack likes plain bagels and I like salted.”

I went to pull out a bag, and she swiped it from my hands.

“Case…” I began to complain. (She sets up.)
“Daba!” she countered. (She shoots.)
“Let me!” and she stuffed the bagels into the bag, tied the bag off and placed it ceremoniously into the cart. (She scores!)

“Casey, where is the $150?” Casey panicked. For an instant she was a twelve year old again and I could see the weight of such an event as losing that much money was even too much for her. She quickly began back tracking. “Oh for the love of…” I was trying to be patient but I was losing any ability to show mercy given the circumstances.

Beneath the day old baked goods bin, I spied the money, with the list and the coupons. They must have fallen down in Casey’s haste to load the bagels.

“I just put them there for safe keeping,” said Casey, now looking clearly relieved. “You worry way too much, you know,” she told me as she headed off to the next item on the list.

“Well, hey, how about you control the money, the list and the coupons. Those are very important jobs and let me steer the cart, okay?”

The scare of almost losing that much money must have made Casey more pliable because she said yes right away.

We crawled up and down the aisles following the floor plan the way a general follows a battle plan. Each stop along the way contained a new challenge: I would inevitably attempt to sneak in an impulse buy and Casey would tilt her head and look at me as though I had just suggested eating dirt for dinner tonight. She thought I was deranged. She would then scamper off to return the errant items.

“Here Daba,” she said to me by the dairy section. “We need two gallons of skim milk, the store brand kind is on sale. Think you can do that?”
“Sale?” I mumbled, off to complete my assignment. Red milk, blue milk, yellow milk: it was, I imagine how a dyslexic must feel looking at the colors, price labels and shelf talkers like I was from another planet.

We stopped four or five times to rearrange the cart. “We can get more stuff in the cart if we put the fruit here and the vegetables there and stack all the canned goods like this.” As we progressed, the cart had such girth that I realized Casey was right. I simply would have used a second cart.

We lined up finally at the checkout counter: it took us an hour to shop – and on a crowded Saturday! I was impressed but I could see Casey didn’t even consider this time saving as anything special except as the result of a personality that saw everything with a square sense of purpose that she wore about her like clothing. I envied her.

Casey began to choreograph the checkout-line dance, loading the food onto the conveyer belt, in the order that she had organized the coupons. Moving to and fro, back and forth with a grace that belied her short twelve years on this plane of existence; slapping my hands whenever I would try to reach into the cart and toss something onto the conveyor. Casey was a great classical pianist, pressing keys and pedals to the rhythm and melody of the moment, completely oblivious to everything a twelve year old should be attuned to. The only exception was when I would throw an item out of order up onto the conveyor. Casey would reach without a wasted motion and toss it back to its proper place on the line of the foodstuffs on the checkout conveyor.

We finally drove off and as we did, I noticed that she was playing with her hair and looking out the window, daydreaming. She was the most capable human being I knew bar none – and she was only twelve years old. But she still had that shy smile whenever people she didn’t know talked to her. Being so able, it was easy to forget how young she really was, how she laughed so hard and full at the most inane things at dinner. She filled a space in my life at a time when the emptiness would have been permanently damaging.

I knew that the last few years had been hard on her, and maybe I didn’t consider what sort of toll they had taken. In a lot fewer years than I cared to consider, she would move off, and away, and decorate someone else’s life, the way she has decorated mine these lightning dozen years. Despite all we had been through, she was still my Peanut.

“Thanks for helping me today Peanut,” I said to her as I smiled.
“No, Daba, thank you for helping me.” She wasn’t rude or cocky, just certain. I laughed.
“Yeah, I suppose so. Same time next week then?”
“Oh, yeah. I have some ideas for next week.”

We turned into the driveway, the wind was pushing the fresh fall leaves all over the lawn. I saw a shadow pass over her youthful, able face, turning it flat, the way a cloud that passes in front of the sun on a windswept sunny day throws a gliding shadow over the valley.

“I miss mom,” Casey said starkly, simply, with no tone, no expectation. It was just a glimpse into her feelings.
“Yeah, Peanut, me too.”

She could even manage the hurt better than I could.

“Let’s go in and I’ll make us some Mac and cheese.”

MB 2004

The Minions of Fascism

So the minions of fascism gather at the gates with torches erupting like solar flares. And the gentle woodland folk watch as the brutishness takes on the characteristics of human dung; dark and clingy, with a dizzying stench, that permeates any hope any faith in a sunrise.

the good fairies and gentle wizards and all the earthen spirits scream of the other way, the other realm... but these are muted against the thick, bony, skull of the intruder, as he tears away at the fabric of the magick of the forest. Killing what he can never know, just to see it die; embracing death and sucking simplicty from the marrow of the elementals that bring the butterflies and dragon flies.

The crows are shot through the heart with the rage of the intruder and they scurry off to keep the truth; but it is no use. Like Saturn, he has devoured his own, and now seeks yours...

we will fight. we will close our eyes and remember the beauty of today's first snow of the winter; we will burn his rancid touch in our madness and we will make the madness be the force that turns the whole planet on its axis.

It will crush his thick skull and hasten the blood in his veins to thicken to paste; the madness will save us. We must always believe in the madness.

MB 2003

The Persistence of Time

Of all monstrosities ever to crawl from mankind’s bleak nightmarish dreams; of all of the ill-conceived, ill-advised, misbegotten, tragic, demon-spirits that his homosapien brain has ever invoked; of all of the twentieth century gaffs ever imagined in the most diabolical, alcohol and drug induced moments of inspiration; none strikes at the core of my ability to function, none saps my strength as assuredly as Delilah’s hairstyling of the omnipotent Sampson, none emasculates me, humiliates me, or intimidates me more than the invention of the digital clock.

This seemingly innocuous device at first glance appears harmless, and in fact, seems quite utilitarian. As I lay half asleep, my face awash in its warm visage glowering its translucent shower, its red demonic eyes glaring at me with sterile lust, jabbing through my closed eyelids taunting me, “almost time, not quite yet, almost.”

My eyes are torn open just one minute prior to that fatal flipping of the digits, 5-5-9, a pause like held breath, then 6-0-0. This is my dance with the Great Satan of my nightstand, each and every morning.

It is not just a dearth of sleep that stokes the embers of my ire. It is something much more insidious and clever. To clarify, I must relate a story.

Recently, I was scheduled to drive my son to a doctor’s appointment after school. The doctor was 15 minutes from the school and the appointment was at 3:00. I fixed in my head the time coordinates the way an old sailor would plot a sea voyage by the stars: I would leave work at 2:30, pick him up at 2:45, then be at the doctor at 3:00.

Now perhaps there is something organically wrong with my brain. Perhaps I am easily distractible or perhaps I have a vitamin deficiency. I have not ruled out the possibility that I may just be stupid. All these are theories that I do not deny as possible causes for what followed. I lost an hour in my head: 2:45 became 3:45.

I arrived at the school one hour late, oblivious to my error. I drove off, estimating my arrival time in a perverse form of calculus that really was more game than functional. As I watched the digital clock flip from 3-5-9 to 4-0-0, the cloud lifted and I stood firmly on the shores of complete and utter confusion: welcome to the land of tardiness. I was embarrassed and confused.

Now, I fully acknowledge and accept my own failings in this debacle, but consider for a moment the un-indicted co-conspirator in this whole affair: the digital clock. The flat, stolid, uncaring digits of that monster, savagely ripped away a three-dimensional world from me, leaving only a landscape of numbers. For one as innumerate as I, this is not only troublesome, but it strikes me as a tad mean-spirited. Distance is not real in this landscape. Perception is not distorted, it simply does not exist.

Analog clocks have long been the instruments man has used to measure the passage of time. Using sand, water even the sun, movement implied time. These methods promoted a contextual understanding of time as it relates to movement and the physicality of the world.

These clocks have given way only fairly recently in the history of humankind to digital forms of measuring the passage from the “now” to the “then”. This shift is one from an almost romantic tango between the physical and the metaphysical, to a vacantly pretty Christmas light which reveals one thing and one thing only: “here you are”. Analog clocks tell me, “here you are, and there you were, and here is where you need to go.”

Analog clocks, exquisitely display space in a relational geometry, not as something static, and fragmented, but as a part of a process. Life is process.

Life is made up of information, the way a pointillist painting is made up of dots. A digital clock reveals the dot, and expects the viewer to appreciate the painting. Analog clocks present the “pulled back view”, so that context is nurtured and fermented, so that meaning and purpose are revealed and preserved.

Digital clocks do relate to my life, but not in the same manner as events relate to my life: only analog clocks do that.

Consider the geometry of movement of an analog clock: circular. It was the Sioux Medicine Man, Black Elk who said “the power of the world always works in circles.” He never suggested that the power of the world works in bits, on or off, flashing LEDs, or flipping panels of digits.

What would Dali’s “Persistence of Time” look like, had he be born in the age of the digital clock? Can a digital clock have any persistence? Does it even have a soul, the way analog clocks seem to?

We have anthropomorphically defined the parts of an analog clock in human terms: it possesses a face and hands. It presents time in a manner more familiar to corporeal beings faced with trying to understand and grapple with something as ephemeral as time. It relates time and space in such a wholesome manner that Einstein himself would approve.

And for those who insist this is progress, this is the digital age, I have no argument. I work with computers; I am fully aware of their advantages. I am not one longing to go back to the days of applying leeches to cure headaches, see my barber for a bloodletting when I get the flu, or insist that the sun really does move around the earth. But because something is new, does it mean it is improved? Or perhaps, as Einstein once noted, everything has changed except man’s thinking. Perhaps progress needs gestation before it is fully assimilated into our true understanding of things. Perhaps, that time is beyond me.

So maybe if I’d had an analog clock on my wrist, or in my car that day, I would not have missed that appointment. Maybe I would have. But I have to stop writing now, because time is up. My own digital wrist watch has screwed me again, as I did not leave enough time to finish this. And I’m willing to bet that if you are reading this piece, your watch is probably telling you that you need to be someplace else now. You simply don’t know where that is.

MB 2004

The Day Jim Henniberry Taught Me To Play Guitar

We are creatures of such faith to presume with the most gossamer evidence that our actions yield effects that go beyond our own mortality. Most of the time, we simply close our eyes and hope.

Jim Henniberry was my best friend in high school. He was tall, thin, with milky white skin, Huck Finn freckles, and long curling dusty hair that rolled down his shoulders, like Peter Frampton, but the young Frampton, not the old one of today. He was “pretty”, really, by every definition of that word.

We met in sophomore year running cross-country together. Bonded in pain, we became friends though by every rule we shouldn’t have. Jim was different from me.

For one thing, he had trouble gaining weight. He was always creating concoctions of protein mix to try to get bigger, because it was a struggle for him. Of all my friends in high school, Jim was the most “eclectic”. That was the word we were using to describe the types of kids who tried out for cross-country. They were the kids who understood the joke: “there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those that understand binary and those that don’t.” We not only understood that joke, but we laughed at it.

Jim had a pet tarantula, which he would take out and let walk up and down his arm. While other kids had jobs in department stores or supermarkets, Jim would take the train into the city every Saturday to pick up collected specimens of butterflies from a place in the Village. He would bring them home, then mount them with pins onto framed boards, only to hustle them back into the city the following week. He was paid piecework for each butterfly.

One of Jim’s many prized possessions was a French rolling machine, ostensibly to roll tobacco, but he used it to make perfect joints. He smoked dope, but never around me. He dropped acid, but I never knew until years later.

During each race, he would reach a point where he would scream at the top of his lungs. For the longest time we were under the belief that he was summoning some inner warrior spirit to help him climb the hills, or pass other runners. Only later did I learn that Jim would drop acid before races. I can only imagine what horrific things he saw chasing him through those woods during races. It certainly helped his time, as he was one of our best runners, which gives a whole new meaning to the idea of “performance enhancing drugs”.

Despite these things that made us so different, I would sit in Jim’s house almost every day after school, upstairs, in his attic-room with slanted ceilings and partitioned sleep space. We accepted who we were to each other gently and effortlessly.

Of all of his passions, his greatest was the guitar. Jim was into fusion jazz: the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, Larry Correal, Spyra Gyra and Herbie Hancock. He had a low-key, stylish Fender Strat with earphones he would plug in so he wouldn’t bother his parents. He was good, but more importantly, he didn’t know how good he was and that made him cool.

We argued endlessly about music. I argued that the Beatles were the greatest musicians ever and that Paul McCartney could play Beethoven’s Fifth using only a tug boat horn.

Jim liked his jazz, and preferred the Stones gritty blues rock over the Beatles’ early pop chord progressions. We argued as if it had meaning, as if the conclusion of this debate would actually change something. These were the discussions of our youth.

One day I asked Jim if he would teach me the guitar. I admit that I had, on occasion, been known to pull out a tennis racket, stand in front of a mirror and belt out a few strains of I Should Have Known Better, or Happy Just to Dance With You. (I was always John Lennon, of course.)

So it was logical that I should ask Jim to teach me how to play. He had an old Harmony acoustic guitar in the corner of his room he said he would sell to me for $25. The first thing he taught me was a bass line to a Mahavishnu Orchestra song: a repetitive run up the E-string echoed by the same 4 note run up the A-String. He would fill around this bottom line with a blizzard of cool licks, bending notes and double bar chords that sparkled. I can still hear the echo and response riff, and I sometimes still play the bass line, imagining Jim playing the lead.

The action on the Harmony was bloody murder. With no calluses yet, it was like fingering one of those wire cheese slicers whenever I would press on a fret.

I took the guitar home and bought a couple of easy play books with the chords pictured above the words. I bought Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Woody Guthrie. Jazz was okay, but my heart was pulling me toward the more lyrical, the more verbal, the simple three-chord composition that was core of folk/pop/rock music.

Over time, Jim gave up trying to teach me bar chords and more jazz solos. I wanted words. I did learn some bar chords on my own, and as I played more, I was actually able to pick up songs by ear, but I never strayed far from the simplicity of the old adage: “more than three chords is just showing off”.

Much later, when I had my family, I sang to my children often until they no longer wanted me to, and even then I would sneak in every so often just to play.

All of this puts me in mind of cause and effect and how we often change things without ever being aware. I have a son now who is old enough to not need his parents for the basic things; whose core passion is music. I introduced him to the guitar in grammar school and the gleam has never his eye. Not only does he want music in his life, but he wants to make his living by making music.

So I sit back now and think about Jim Henniberry and his impact on my life. I think about how lives intersect at such odd angles. A few years ago, as a wave of nostalgia washed over me like rain, I tracked him down by phone. He was living in Texas when I called him. He had two girls now, proof, I suppose, that LSD didn’t affect chromosomes the way they said it did. We talked fondly of high school and other friends – those still around and those who have moved on.

I am a great believer in closing circles whenever I can, so I told him about the guitar, my son, and how music filled every room in our house, in a large part due to him. I thanked him.

I can’t really say how he took it, whether he was embarrassed, or whether he was not even touched at all. All I know is that it is a very rare moment when we can see someone’s actions ripple through a life and, like a billiard ball, affect change.

Because of Jim, perhaps someday my son’s voice will be added to the vast cannon of music that defines us as human. I don’t think Jim ever thought about that as he played his Larry Correal, or Clapton covers. He wasn’t thinking of my children or his when he tried in vain to teach me that jazz riff. I certainly know I didn’t.

But this is a blessing, just the same. Just like happening upon a rainbow after a storm when no one else is around to witness it. You stop, you look around and see no one else around and you think, “Why me?” You say thanks, and just move on.

MB 2004


Whenever people wonder why nothing forces its way through my airways, over the larynx, over the tongue and through the teeth to make a sound, I do not understand the source of the wonder. It is as obvious to me as a sunrise -- when I have things to relate, to utter, to divulge, to share, I do.

Sitting alone and lost in a good book, or swept up by the muses of poetry, I hear music in the silence and I can't imagine why no one else does. Not all the time. But most of the time. The senses are almost heightened. Things are clearer, sharper and more true to their own nature.
When we speak is when life begins its assiduous assault on things trim and proper; seeking debasement of a human spirit at any cost. In fact, had it not been for the urge to communicate in general, and speech in specific, Cain and Able might to this day be celebrating Passover with the grandkids. Maybe.

Speech implies opening oneself to some degree to forces one has no control over. It also obfuscates and deceives -- both listener and the speaker.

Quiet disturbs and annoys. It forces introspection and usually toward those who love introspection the least (but ironically need it the most). It amuses me to witness this; to witness the most inane chatter that takes place to fill a void that serves a concrete purpose: to allow us the freedom to simply be present - in body, in spirit, in heart and in soul.

Quiet can also assume depth which is not always the case either. However, since the most shallow want to cover up that shallowness with some sort of chaff, that the most shallow will often do whatever it takes to avoid the silence.

Before the days of television, silence was part of the everyday regimen. It was expected as part of the "norm" and as such, it was never feared or avoided; it came when it came, and it was broken when it needed to be broken. It is too simplistic to lay waste to television as the Great Satan of the world. Everyone complains, but everyone watches. Its hard not to. It is glib, facile and wonderfully distracting. And these are all good things - in context. What context, you ask? In the context of a culture that promotes not rugged individualism, but a sort of rugged individualistic social symbiosis - a one for one and for the many and never at the expense of the one. We give and we take in measures commensurate to the need. (Sounds like communism, I know, and what precisely does this have to do with silence?)

This: silence nourishes the individual, making one stronger for the whole.

So when you look at me and I sit there and I and only I can hear that inner voice; when I do speak you do not listen; and when you do listen, you completely misunderstand; and when you understand, you carve it in stone and assume it never changes and is never subject to rework, rethought and revision; when this is the reality I have known all my life, when this is the only truth that will not hurt me - that when I am silent, I am free to be; free to think as I please; free to break off or engage - intellectually. I am free to never be understood or misunderstood. And best of all, I am allowing growth. Vows of silence are exercises in the lost art of silence.

And when we meet in the world of speech, in the world of contact, what will we exchange? Will it be wholesome and nourishing? Or will it be hurtful and denigrating? Will it demand dominance and adherence and rule making? What will we provide each other?

These words - on this paper - are an attempt to probe the 3-dimenstional texture that is silence - in my heart, in my head, in my daily activities. Silence will embrace us all and welcome us. It will open doors within - BUT at the expense of being more and more needful of being understood. This is the paradox. This is the dilemma.

So I will go on in my silence - never wishing to offend. Only hoping through silence, we can still make contact.

MB 2000

Fantastic Voyuer

Stepping from the left to right temporal lobe is a strange thing indeed. The first thing you notice is that the surface on which you tread is much more sticky, like a thick jam-like surface that hangs from tree-like structures everywhere. The branches extend outward, cranial bound to the skull begging for a simple neuron hit; one vial of electro-neural crack just for a minute... to provide the life; to provide the rush.

But instead, wasted synapses exude the muck of stifled thought, of confined feeling, of cliches and trite sentimentality. "These are the things that bind us" our hero thinks, "to a mere 3 dimensional world".

As he steps inward toward the centers of feeling, the terrain becomes softer, more bog-like; life teems here, our hero can smell it. It smells like humus in the spring, rich with the fertility of the goddess... in this land, the pulses throb with crystalline flakes that hang like a colloidal
suspension in the air. Our hero, swipes his hand slowly leaving multicolor trails of where his hand as been, scooping up the flakes into his hand. The flakes lay flat and make a noise like coins as he rattles them about. These are the ossified feelings of moral stricture, the constraints long ago inculcated into the species but has over time become written into the genetic code.

Moving further into the dark cavernous land where Ego and Id reside,
devouring the images that pour in from the optic impulses; twisting the images in various shapes, pouring shadows and light over them until they are barely recognizable except in dreams; where volcanoes of passion spew forth the lava of the mix, the primordial ejaculant with which color comes to us in the "real world" , is at once both hot and cold. It frightens and entrances our hero, caught in the gleaming ooze, texture, sound and taste which all converge here to provide orgasmic fodder for the spirits that inhabit this realm.

And there are spirits here.. time is one such spirit that inhabits this realm.

It moves in and out of the spaces that pain creates in little pot holes of the soul; it propels dreams forward and in reverse; it imprisons our hero with barless prisons that limit his movements. Movement of feeling, movement of soul, movement of music and art, of passion: these things are the golden fleece our hero seeks in each and every moment, in each and every lover, in each and every image that passes through consciousness into the subconscious layer where man originated and to where he must always return. Hell, it is believed, comes from this place -- as does heaven; manifestations of the same place where pain and pleasure lose their distinctions, so man creates the boxes in a vain attempt to control them.

Our hero grows weary, battling the wind tunnel of time and racial memory that goes back to singular atoms forming molecules eons ago. There is spirit there as well. He moves into the soft greens of compassion and selflessness and feels the depth of encompassing warmth -- it slows him down, but he doesn't mind much. His mind fills with the verdant hue and he can almost taste the green as it forces itself down his own gullet. He can sense it in his joints and can smell it and it reminds him of the tragedy that is life. He is both comforted and at once afraid of this knowledge. He is alone and feels the weight of loneliness pressing down on his chest, there is no language that can describe it; he does what he can to ape a sound, any sound, and let someone know the pain, the loneliness -- but it pins him in green to the branches of other neurons. He wants to close his eyes and let it end; he is not suicidal but he so desperately needs to die.

Hee wants the sound to stop and to fill his head with deafness -- but the loneliness fucking crucifies him to the branches... the shock of the hurt at first surprises him, but then he feels nothing and the fading continuum of this existence, he realizes, is not at all different from what he expected.

There is death in him now, as he struggles to give up. It is a passive struggle, no doubt, but a struggle nonetheless.

Like looking into a mirror of a mirror, he sees himself a million times getting smaller and smaller, in the reflection of this inner space, the green all around him, he slides down to the part of the pysche where he is surrounded by fingers of cotton-like fog, his arms and legs now no longer nailed to any color, he floats and feels no resistance. He is pulled along and acceptance becomes his partner. He breathes it in and feels it trickle down like blood to his toes; it is warm and feels distant to his own sense of self.

Finally, he loses memory of who he is; images of moose and squirrel; of a long haired girl in a field; of tantric sex with wormholes; of spiders crawling up his back and lots of laughter. these spirits now fill him and he chooses, to hold them inside until believes he will burst with joy; and expel the blurry, milky life he has grown to accept and map, and become friends with.

It is sunset that pulls him in and sunset that twists his memory and soul.

It is the hard bright glare of a laughing full moon that shines on the spot where his existence used to be... a tombstone to a past unmarked by its absence, unfettered by sentiment now, unknowing and as yet, unknown to an indifferent place that has forgotten how to feel, how to trust, how to be at ease with the crevasses of the mind and heart that make up a land only dreamed of. But our hero marks the spot with trails of blood from his open
wounds, syrup of pain that goes on with no stitches -- never healing -- never expiring.
Prometheus promoted to having his skin removed instead of his liver -- the source of love -- exposed and yet all alone.

MB 2003


A desert is that stone in your shoe – the one that makes you stop and take notice. Deserts have always been portrayed as places to which one runs off, places of dearth, places one endures but they are more. A desert cannot be recognized as such while we are in one. Deserts take on their spiritual timbre only when viewed from another vantage, like remembering a dream, or like viewing that amber-now-red stop light in our rear-view mirror. A desert is not defined by what it possesses but by what it offers: a voice, a time, a “not-here and not-now”, a counter moment.

Deserts are not “places”, nor are they comprised of solitude, though their popular images connote such attributes. I have lived through deserts of company, in a crowd, surrounded by the sand and heat, death and desolation of each uttered syllable of conversation.

I have been to deserts and they are nothing if not areas of demarcation, areas which set aside one thing as different than another. Another place, another way of living, another voice, another view. Any place you are not is desert.

I am not certain that one can place oneself in a desert, but rather it is a place in which one finds oneself. Growth, when it occurs, happens like the hands of a moving clock or like some plant tropism.

I have breathed the hot desert air, longing for the certitude a desert can provide. Delimiting, confining, oppressive, yielding nothing, one is free to discover edges of areas of personality not discernible anyplace else. It can bend personality into a pliable conformance, forcing one open like a clam.

There are deserts everywhere. They are the bookmarks of the examined life. They are sand and concrete, with lush verdant green canopies, paneled in mahogany, sweating in crowded un-cooled subway cars, or driving to work, contemplating the birth of a child or contemplating suicide. We carry them like billfolds in our back pockets. We hold them as close and as tenderly as a whisper. We fondle them in pants pockets like that brand-spanking-new penny. Everywhere.

They are our own. We own them. They are the expanse that is the difference between what we know and what we want. Deserts are defined by the “not” and offer absences as substance, in a culture that offers substance as absence.

MB 2003

Remembering Roger Bannister

Fifty years ago today, Roger Bannister broke the 4:00 minute mile.

Like Sputnik and soon, the fall of the Berlin wall, this is yet another fact that most people will gloss over as the most irrelevant of facts in a world already awash in irrelevancy.

i know that doesn't sound like much, running a mile in less than 4:00 minutes; especially since in my day, kids in high school were completing a mile around a cinder track in just over 4:00 minutes. Today, I imagine they routinely break that barrier. i don't really know for sure. Of course, with the advent of metrics, I am not certain there even IS a mile any longer (damn Europeans!)

Growing up a runner in high school, the name Roger Bannister meant something to me. The first. Like Rosa Parks but without the sense of social conflagration that surrounded the event. The names Jim Ryan and Kip Keino: does anyone even remember their nearly mythic battles on the track at a time when Track and Field still struggled to gain space on the inner most pages of the sports sections of newspapers - just after the classifieds - the sections that no one ever really reads?

I remember when Nike was "invented", selling shoes out of the backs of trucks to us in high school. I remember Steve Prefontaine and even went to his hometown of Coos Bay Oregon to pay him homage after his tragic death in 1975. I remember watching and being part of a sport that was almost completely out of the public eye, as it was being born.

While most kids were oohing and ahhing over Dr. J or counting Hank Aaron's home runs, I was one of the few on the east coast wearing my "Go Pre" tee-shirt.
Hearing the news of this anniversary made me realize how far things have come from where we started; like traveling across a river on a boat, the shore we left gets smaller and smaller until it hardly even seems significant.

This makes me consider how what we think of as important, as milestones, in the end are just events after all. Sub 4:00 minute. Sub 3:00 minute, it's really all the same. Roger Bannister was a doctor, not a professional athlete. He trained on his lunch hour from medical school, having to pay 3 pence just to use the track to train. He was an athlete, when today what we honor is celebrity. He ran for the record, for the honor, for that limit. Not for a contract. Not for a Gatorade commercial. And not even so he could hold up his index finger indicating he was truly "number 1". It was never about self-exultation, the way sports today seem to be. What was lifted up was the spirit of global human endeavor. Breaking the four-minute mile was a milestone for all humans everywhere, not one team, or city, or country.

Today, the sub-four minute mile has become a metaphor for something more than just a race. It has come to represent the frailty of limits; the transient nature of boundaries and on a universal level makes one consider all possibility as mathematically feasible and endless - like those Russian nesting dolls where one fits inside the other, inside the other, inside the other.

Where can it stop? This is not a question we are given the luxury of considering in these days of the microchip and the Internet. This was not even about success. It was about why we do the things we do. In a day when success seems to be all that matters, this was a moment in time when why we do what we do sometimes matters more.

What fell that day in England was more than just a record.

What fell in the record books that day fifty years ago was a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of looking at things that hold us back, and a way of overcoming. And on this anniversary, for us not to honor the record breaker and the record passing; to not honor the last of this breed of athlete, to not recognize how rare a heart this was to challenge and overcome simply for its own sake, would be a disgrace.

A Flight To Remember

“Mama! Stop waving the napkin!” My momma was trying to get the attention of the young grass blade of a flight attendant like some toreador with epilepsy.

“Si, senora?” the young woman smiled a large, toothy grin.
“Vino! More vino por favore,” my momma squealed.
“Mama, these women are Chilean – we are not flying to Italy!”
“Ah leave me alone! They understand me! Everyone is Italian when it comes to wine!” The flight attendant poured the heavy cabernet El Gato Negro – the black cat – into momma’s glass. Momma’s eyes glistened like the light off the plastic cup.

“Gracie! Multi gracie!” She shot me a look as if to say, “See? Your momma’s not so stupid!” I rolled my eyes and turned toward the window and tried to get some sleep.

With the hum of the engines as white noise broken only by the tinkling of the drink cart, I began to think about my brother and how he came to live in Santiago de Chile. The memories of our youth were still fresh. Wasn’t it only last year we marched together in the “No Nukes” rally in Central Park? The mobs of people adding to the carnival atmosphere and the hope of what we thought we were accomplishing made us drunk.

We took the subway in and climbed up the stairway. The march had already started and we jumped in. I chuckled, barely audible, when I remembered how we ended up marching with the gay pride group, walking directly behind a banner that read: “We’re HERE! We’re QUEER! It’s NUKES we have to Fear!”

Yeah, in some file cabinet in a dark basement in Washington D.C. is my file, I’m certain, with a picture of me behind that banner.

Joe had always been active. He put his body in harm’s way when he boarded the freighter in Nicaragua in an attempt to stave off the U.S. blockade in the 80’s.

Joe and I had always been close growing up, but I hadn’t seen him in years. I was taking Momma to visit him and Sue, his wife. They had two little girls born in Santiago Momma had never seen. Momma was too old to travel alone, and I offered to take her down for a visit.

She finished the wine with a royal relish, placed her seat back and pulled the blue wool LAN Chile blanket over her. Soon she was snoring.

At sunrise I could see the Andes mountains greet the pink and purple morning sky like a drawn window shade. I knew we were close and soon the pilot’s voice burst open in rapid fire Spanish announcing that Santiago was not too far off.

I nudged Momma who woke cursing in Italian (she always did!)
“Momma, we’re here!” I said to her calming her down.

The anticipation was thick; the landing, customs, the reunion, meeting her grandchildren for the first time.

We taxied on the tarmac straining to see what we could from the window of the L-1011 as its wings bounced, seemingly tired from the long flight.
It’s so odd how airports seem to go out of their way to not look at all like the rest of the country it inhabits. It’s as though they import the same trees and row housing and ratty looking gulls for every airport in the world.

We watched as they began to remove the luggage like some surgery on a great whale. The men pulled bag after bag loading them onto a 1950’s era Ford flatbed truck that still ran on leaded gasoline. The drivers wore bandanas around their faces for protection from the wind and fumes. I leaned back and closed my eyes thinking about how tired I was.

Suddenly a large oak of a man with night black hair and pock marked face and large Brillo mustache came striding back. I presumed he was the pilot; his gait had the determination of a man who never smiled and who lived for the official moments of life the way a bride and groom live for the honeymoon.

He stopped at our row.

“Senor Ramsey?” he said, curtly but in an official manner.
“Huh?” I looked up at him still a bit deaf from the recent cabin decompression.
“Senor, please come with us.”

I stumbled out of the seat into the aisle over Momma who was looking for the flight attendant to see if she could get more El Gato Negro oblivious to the pilot or the fact that we had even landed.

I held the railing of the steps, counting the tapping of my feet in the aluminum steps, listening to the metallic sound like rainwater in a puddle. My mind was blank with fear. Where were they taking me?

We climbed aboard a 1930’s style diesel bus; dilapidated and patched like old jeans from other discarded bus parts. Once on board, the flood of olive green and the smell of sweat and tobacco was overpowering. The leader was an officer of some sort. He stepped forward, slung his M-1 rifle to the side and smiled a five o’clock shadow smile.

“Senor, alli, por favor.” He pointed to the hangar. His breath smelled like a vineyard left to rot in the summer. I looked around at all the military wardrobe and hardware – all U.S. issue. The bus lurched forward rattling like a coughing fit, until my eyes were vibrating at the same frequency of the bus. Things looked like a failing TV picture tube, twisted, angular and blurry.

We pulled into the hangar and the officer motioned me forward with his shoulder. The gun strap slipped off and he had to make a quick move to keep it from falling. For a brief moment, the movie Missing played through my head. All I could remember of the movie was all the bodies. There were so many bodies that they had to store them on the roofs of buildings. Would my body – decapitated and with no hands or feet – be found floating down the Rio Mapocho through the center of Santiago like all those others years ago?

My mind raced for another language. Like a supercomputer, I began to dredge up my high school Spanish and conjugate verbs as if my life depended on it. We stopped at a spot where there were more guards, more guns and dogs. They had momma’s bag looking like road kill sprawled open; they were all standing around looking concerned. They asked me in broken English to open the bag.

Ayuder, ayudo, ayude, ayudamos, ayudan … my mind continued to conjugate.

I opened the bag and the guards asked me to open a package by shoving it under my nose politely but firmly. They found a bottle of talcum powder that had broken open in transit, and a few of the guards were dipping fingers and tasting the powder.

Drugs? The thought hit me like that first moment when you dive into a cold pool. “They think I have drugs!” I thought. The drug sniffing dogs must have smelled the powder and alerted the guards that something in this case was amiss. “Just say no to talc…” I joked weakly, but no one understood the humor or the English. Since I had checked the bags in, they were registered in my name. The police read the manifest, found my name and called me off the plane.

The thought of going to a Chilean jail suddenly flashed a flood of adrenaline through my body, to the point where my insides actually hurt.

More conjugations. “How do I say ‘take the old woman…it’s her suitcase… not mine!’ in Spanish?” was all I could think of. Toma la vieja… Toma la vieja…

It was not my finest moment.

The guards laughed at the gringo now sweating like a bathroom mirror before them. They tasted the talcum powder, decided that this was not a drug and that I was no drug lord and sent me back to the plane, very graciously I might add. Clearly they were enjoying the discomfort I was in.

I trembled like a poplar in a storm, trying not to recall my brief review of high school Spanish and trying not to recall how I almost sold out my own momma.

I sat down in the seat. Momma was now worried and her face had a “What happened? What did they do to you?” kind of look, though she never uttered a word. I could see the concern traced in the creases of her face.

“Gimme that!” I said as I grabbed the last of her El Gato Negro and gulped hard. The alcohol wasn’t strong enough. Every pore of my body was sweating now as I retold the story to momma, who would gasp and nod in all the right places. We even laughed when I told her about how I even had thoughts of giving her up were it not for my own ineptitude with Spanish.

Finally we disembarked.

“Let’s see,” I thought as I tasted the warm tropical air, “tomar…toma…toman…tomamos , no es mio… yeah, that’s it.”

MB 2003