Thursday, December 29, 2011

Earlier this year—just a few months ago, actually—I did a calculation regarding my aging mother, my very old dog, Kate, and my old cat, Memphis. Accounting for human years, dog years, and cat years, they were all in their late 80s. There is grief, and there is anticipatory grief, and I experienced some of the latter when I reckoned up the numbers.

I should rush to point out the problems with an implication that the grief over the loss a pet can be equated to the loss of one’s mother, or any person close to us. Rather, I will write that the calculation had me thinking about grief when it occurs in clusters.

I’m not going to write here about my mother, who died in September. I’ve done that already, elsewhere and am glad I did. Instead, I want to write about the love of pets. My love of pets.

(Careful readers of Right Hand Pointing, the online journal I founded and have edited for nearly 8 years, will recall (and be amused) that I specifically exclude writings about one’s pets in the submission guidelines. Fate, and Cortney Bledsoe have intersected to hand me a little punishment for that callousness.)

We decided to have Kate euthanized in November. She was old and suffering and was helped in life and into death by her fine veterinarian. Sad, indeed, but, you know, a long life, etc.

I’m writing this at 3:00 a.m. as Christmas approaches, awake because of a dose of night air and adrenaline. Here’s the story. Memphis, the cat, is 17. She’s got renal insufficiency. Lately she’s been walking around the house, crying loudly and in an unfamiliar way. It’s the sound I can only associate with a feline in heat, and I’m confident that she’s not in heat. I took her to the vet today and he assured me he could find nothing to lead him to believe that she is in pain. Her crying, he said, was probably the result of a touch of cat dementia, maybe some transient discomfort. Otherwise, he said, apart from the kidney problems, she appears in decent shape for an old cat. I drove her home and let her out of the car to spend a little time in the unseasonable warm we had today.

We have family with us for the holiday and they brought their dog Louise. Great dog. Louise had just slipped out of the house through an unlatched door and we didn’t realize she was in the yard. She went after Memphis, as her species is prone to do, and it was a terrifying thing to see. I was sure Louise was killing Memphis. My daughter and I finally broke up the fight. Memphis looked completely dazed and traumatized. I brought her in and put her under observation. When she seemed settled down and unhurt, I let her out to pee in the yard. She never leaves the yard. Hours later, she was missing. I walked the neighborhood before bedtime with a flashlight.

At 2:30 a.m. I woke. Still, she was not on the porch. Unheard of. I got dressed, backed my car out of the driveway and searched the neighborhood. I had a bad feeling. I feared she had died from internal injuries or that, traumatized, she had run away. As Christmas approaches in a few days, I feared we would all be anxious and grieving. I felt guilty for not keeping her away from the dog. For not returning her immediately to the vet. For letting her outside after the fight and then again, later, to pee.

The climax of the story is anticlimactic. When I pulled up in the driveway, feeling miserable, there she was, petitioning for reentry. I scooped her up and I thought about our love for pets. Actually, what I thought was "I love this cat."

A few years ago I was in Boston visiting Harvard and attended a Mark Doty reading at the Harvard Bookstore. It was from Dog Years, his wonderful book about the dogs that were his companions during the loss of his lover to HIV/AIDS. During the Q&A a man said, “Here’s what I don’t understand about you dog people, or you cat people, either. You get the pet. You develop this bond. The pet lives a relatively short life and dies. You go through this grief. And then, what do you do? You get another pet and go through it all again.”

We all chuckled, but not Mark Doty. He thought for about two seconds and said, “The agreement to participate in this life is a pact with grief. Isn’t it?”

My mother’s body lies in Grant County, Arkansas. Kate’s ashes are—I don’t know where they are, actually. Memphis sits with me on the couch, interfering with my ability to operate the computer mouse by nuzzling my mouse hand, looking for me to scratch her chin. In nine days, New Year’s Day.

* * *

Dale Wisely is the founding editor of Right Hand Pointing and also co-founded and co-edits White Knuckle Press (digital chapbooks of prose poems, and the new journal (topical poetry, Day job: He has been a clinical psychologist for 30 years and currently serves as Director of Student Services at Mountain Brook Schools in Alabama.

Monday, December 26, 2011

I might've been 5, 6. Dad was 3 sheets to the wind. I remember him standing in the southwest corner of the living room holding a beer, grinning with his cap pushed back. There was a knock on the door, and Uncle Wheelbarrow came in, dressed as Santa Claus. He was carrying a glass of something dark and evil-smelling. I imagine it was bourbon because that was a favorite drink of my father and his friends. Mom had her arms crossed, and, as Dad got a chair for Uncle Wheelbarrow, declared she was going to bed. She made a brief argument that it was time for me to go as well, but Dad repelled this attack, and she steamed away to bed.

"Come sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas, little boy," Uncle Wheelbarrow said. I didn't want to. Before, I hadn't wanted to go to bed, but now, I'd have given anything to be out of there, even if it meant going to bed early on Christmas Eve.

"Come on, Boy," Dad said.

I sat on Uncle Wheelbarrow's lap. His bear was coming off. He still held the glass of liquor, and it sloshed and spilled on his leg, making him curse: "Sit still!" I was terrified. There was no novelty in this, only confusion about the rules of a game I didn't understand. Uncle Wheelbarrow leaned over me, his hot breath in my ear. "Tell Santa what you want for Christmas."

Here was something every child understands: when the strange man in the red suit asks what you want, it's time to unleash the greed. I listed some things--I don't remember what, exactly. The last thing I said was a Nerf football.

"Football?" Uncle Wheelbarrow roared. "What's wrong with you? Don't you want a woman, Boy?"

I may have started crying; whatever happened, Dad deemed it no longer funny, and I was sent to bed.

* * *

Again, maybe I was 6, though this was a ritual we repeated every year. Christmas Eve, my sister and I snuck into our brother's room and stole his longest socks. We raided the kitchen for treats -- oranges, almonds. Julie had managed to acquire candy bars, so we stuck them in. We drew pictures for everyone and put those in, as well, until the socks were full. Then we hung them and waited for Christmas morning.

Dad's best friend, an old army buddy named James Kennedy, gave us giant trash bags full of presents when we were younger. It was like manna from heaven: toys, games, never clothes, culminating in a box full of quarters he'd saved all year. This was our college fund. Christmas morning while Dad was working, Julie and I would sit on the floor by the tree counting quarters. There was usually a couple hundred dollars worth. When the bank opened, we'd take it all and watch it slide through the change counter.

* * *

Christmas Eve, I'd come home from college to see a girl I used to go out with. I went to a party with her, but things went bad. I went home and slept on Dad's couch until he woke, after dawn, then I headed out, back to college, ahead of a big storm. I made it to Ozark when I hit the ice, slid around backwards, and careened off the road into a tree. I managed to get the car back on the road and limped along until a patrol car came and pointed out that my axle was bent. The policewoman gave me a ride to the station after the car was towed. An old convict fed me Christmas dinner -- turkey and stuffing. The cop took me to a motel where I spent the next two days until my friends, who were stranded along various parts of the interstate as well, could come. Arkansas was frosted with a blanket of ice. I read Flannery O'Connor, and an ex-girlfriend I'd dumped called to check on me.

* * *

Last night, I played with Ellie in front of Jillian's parents' Christmas tree. Jillian and her father played a duet in the other room -- Jillian on violin, her father on piano, while I dive-bombed Ellie with a stuffed-chicken. She squealed and laughed every time I brought the stuffed animal close to her and reached for it in anticipation, until, finally, I made it nuzzle her head. Then she would squeal with joy. As the music was played, Ellie turned and stared at the tree. I couldn't help kissing her head.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I emailed my buddy Marko Fong:

Cortney asked me to write about something that gives me joie de vivre – something interesting, something I am passionate about, something that blows me away. And now I am paralyzed! Joie de vivre? Passionate? Positive things? Interesting things? What does this have to do with me? You have said my stories are about outsiders. My blog
posts are about TV (and I am pretty snarky, not really positive) and second person! What is interesting about second person? I mean, to normal people? Your Literary Country Club laughs at second person! What am I passionate about? …. What blows me away? Just picking something and labeling it "this blows me away" is scary –someone is going to say, "THAT is what blows you away? What is wrong with you?" Like a Rorschach test. I always hated those, for that exact reason. "What do you mean, you see a bear with a huge penis?" And positive? Who, me?

So far I have come up with: My shower curtain. It is not my shower curtain any more – it got all moldy and I replaced it years ago, but I really liked it and realizing
I liked it was a kind of turning point, that I could have something that just pleased me, it did not have to be "art" and would not change my life in any way but would offer me some measure of enjoyment or comfort once in a while, like when something bad happens and you lie on the couch and someone is there to put a quilt over you and bring you a cup of tea, it will not fix the problem but it is comfort. But…passionate, joie de vivre, blows me away: a shower curtain and a cup of tea?

Science. I just happened to be watching a PBS Nova episode on fractals tonight. Right there, I have lost just about everyone - six people in the country watch Nova! And I do not understand fractals at all! But the thing about the coastline – the smaller you make your ruler, the longer the coastline gets, and if your ruler is infinitely small, the coastline is infinitely long. And the old space as a rubber sheet thing. Infinity. Infinity plus one. Imaginary numbers. I do not understand these things at all, but they are SO COOL! But does it make sense to say "I love this even though I can not explain it enough to tell you what it is"?

"Different Trains" by Steve Reich. A modernist musical composition from the 80s, using a string quartet and a tape of trains and spoken voices of Holocaust survivors - I fell alseep with the TV on one night and woke up to this, it was a documentary musically commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on PBS again – see, Auschwitz and PBS, how can you put those into a "joie de vivre" post? - and how he was a kid in America travelling back and forth between
his divorced parents in NY and LA and if he had been in Germany he would have been riding very different trains. It gives me goosebumps just to write that. But how to convey that so it means something to someone else? What do you think I seem positive and passionate about? Or does the very idea make you giggle like it does me?

And Marko said:

"…your blog persona is a very happy individual, constantly probing the world for clues about something, I think. It is interesting that you mention almost no in person interaction with other people, but it's also fascinating to see how all these different things stimulate your imagination, and make you examine the world."

Maybe that is it, that is what blows me away, figuring things out! Why do I like looking at my shower curtain? How can a coastline possibly be infinitely long? How can music hurt in a way that feels so good? Is there more to second person technically than the pronoun "you"? This last thing is in honor of my Second Person Study, now a 16-part exploration of second person including two texts on narratology (and a third in the works, and trust me, I have to take it one sentence at a
time) and several second-person and person-and-a-half stories all of which was generated by my observation that I have never read a bad published second person story yet so many people seem to hate it and warn against the evils of writing second person.

I do not think I will ever figure these things out, but I will have fun trying! And there are so many more wonderful enigmas to think about!

* * *

Zin Kenter lives, writes, reads, and plays in Maine, and is currently
contemplating the following: DSL, cable, or landlord-provided wifi? Is
this the year to try the Jacques Torres Buche de Noel? Heifer
International, UNICEF, or the Preble Street Resource Center, or an
even split among them all? Come visit at A Just Recompense
(, where Zin sometimes blogs.

Monday, December 19, 2011

We were given a lot of children’s books before Ellie was born, which is awesome, but it means that we have books we probably wouldn’t have chosen, ourselves. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; we’ve discovered some great books this way, for example, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for. But the messages of some of these books isn’t quite so benign. Such as:

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Mike Mulligan is a working class guy who just likes to dig using his steam shovel. He "digs a little faster and a little better" when people are watching and appreciate him, which is a wonderful sentiment. Unfortunately, the march of progress kicked Mulligan in the face, and he was replaced with gasoline-powered machines. In a last-ditch effort to remain useful, Mulligan digs the basement for the town hall, but boxes himself in and can't get out. So they leave him there and build the town hall around and above him. The book presents this as a happy ending, but how can it be? Mulligna is trapped in a cellar, away from the watching, appreciative eyes of people who once made him 'dig a little faster and better.' He is useless, now, relegated to the basement where progress can continue without anyone having to see this cast-off relic from the past. As I was reading this story to my daughter, I was aghast. It's a terrible message for kids.

A book with a much more positive message on the treatment of the working class is Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. The story goes like this: the cows are cold out in the barn, so they refuse to give anymore milk until the farmer gives them electric blankets. Then the chickens get in on it. The animals communicate by typing messages on an old typewriter, hence the title. The book balances silliness with a valid message about respecting others and being grateful to others for the work they do for our benefit. It also has a funny twist I won't spoil.

Here's one that surprised me: The Polar Express. I didn't remember this book at all, even after reading it. I have to admit, I was excited about it until I read it. The story is, basically, it's Christmas time, and these kids hop a train to the North Pole. They're warmed up with stories about Santa giving them stuff. When they get to town, they encounter a multitude of elves gathering to hear the great fuhrer Das Santa speak. Seriously, I felt chills reading about these interchangeable elves practically worshiping this unapproachable Santa. The scene has all the warmth and joy of an SS rally. One of the kids is given a gift, which keeps him faithful all of his life. Everything about this book is lacking in anything one would want to associate with Christmas. The children are greedy. Santa is treated like a totalitarian ruler. The whole thing left me feeling dirty.

A much better book about giving would be, of course, The Giving Tree. This is quite possibly the greatest children's story ever written, from the point of view of a parent. It perfectly sums up the relationship between a parent and child. I challenge anyone to read this book without sobbing like a kitten.

I've discovered lots of other great books, of course. The books of Rosemary Wells and Mercer Mayer are my favorites right now. One thing that bothers me about these books is that the anthropomorphic creatures in them wear shirts but never pants. But that's a post for another day.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jessy Randall: Now let's discuss pizza bagels. What I particularly like about the pizza bagels available at multiple Twelve Corners venues…

Daniel M. Shapiro: We should start the blog with "Now let's discuss pizza bagels," no preface of any kind.

JR: So to continue, what I particularly like about the Twelve Corners pizza bagels is that you get a little bit of flavor/teeth-glintiness of tinfoil in some bites.

DS: Indeed.

JR: Not all bites, but some, because it's not like you're going to be able to remove all the tinfoil, because you are HUNGRY…

DS: You become a sort of trashcan rat for it, as if your life depends on getting every tidbit of cheese.

JR: And also you have only 18 minutes to get to The Bagel Shop or Murray's and back to school.

DS: Right. You're not going to go without cheese on account of foil.

JR: Which is pretty much my philosophy of life. So which are better, Murray's or Bagel Shop pizza bagels, and why? Obviously they are both GREAT, in the way that Shakespeare, etc. are GREAT…

DS: But this is probably too obscure—writing about food that was sold at a place that doesn't exist anymore. Or maybe that's the point: We love things that don't exist anymore.

JR: Well, the Bagel Shop is still there and I got a pizza bagel there in recent memory.

DS: Murray's was just the best, though. Bagel Shop didn't have a chance.

JR: What made Murray's better? We need concrete details here. We're not just fluffing around on our unicorn butterflies here.

DS: Burning hot—perfect for when you're freezing your ass off.

JR: Yes, you can eat them with mittens on, which probably also leads to the tinfoil situation.

DS: The bagels stayed crunchy; never soggy from sauce. The cheese overran the bagel, thus forming the tinfoil bond.

JR: OK. I am in complete agreement. Also, the macaroni salad there had little bits of black olives chopped up into it, which was really good, and you couldn't even tell what it was. I finally asked. I don’t think I ever would have figured it out otherwise. But let's return to the pizza bagels; we don't want to get off topic.

DS: You're telling me, but I didn't mention macaroni salad, did I?

JR: At this point we should insert Anna's recipe for pizza bagels.


JR: Did you try it? It totally works. My kids loved them.

Anna Primrose Bendiksen’s Recipe for Pizza Bagels!

Essentially the first step is to make garlic bread out of the bagels, but without toasting them as much as you would for garlic bread. This is how I do it. Crush some garlic together with a bit of kosher salt (I do this with a mortar and pestle but a garlic press would work) and mix into olive oil, then brush all over the bagel halves. Bake at 400 degrees F for about 5-8 minutes, or until barely browned. There are a couple of ways to make pizza sauce. Aage's way, which is more involved than mine and better when you're making a whole pizza, I think, is to sauté some more crushed garlic in olive oil and add a can of pureed or crushed tomatoes when the garlic is about to brown. Add pizza seasoning (Penzeys is very good) and simmer. My way—this is especially good for pizza bagels—is to take tomato paste and add a touch of crushed garlic and a lot of pizza seasoning. No cooking involved. At this point you have the makings of a very easy party menu that kids and teenagers especially appreciate. Lay out bagels, sauce and toppings and people can make their own. Place on a rimmed pan (the bagels, not the people) and bake, again at 400 degrees, until done. The whole wrapping-in-foil thing is something I do afterwards.

JR: Are we done with pizza bagels at least for now? Can we move on to Country Sweet chicken wings? Or is that too much Rochester and we need to mix it up a little? And is it true that someone from Brighton High School once drove 27 hours for Country Sweet and was that person Steven Kotok?

DS: Maybe the whole blog entry will be about loving Rochester.

JR: No, because that's boring ... right?

DS: Probably.

JR: I would have thought writing about food in general would be boring to the people who aren’t actually eating the food, just hearing about it. But then, there's the Food Channel, and so many food books and so on, so it seems you don't have to have the food in front of you to enjoy thinking about it.

DS: Steve might've driven from Minnesota, but it wasn't just for Country Sweet, I'm sure.

JR: I feel like someone drove a very long way, had some, and then drove back, maybe stopping to sleep but that's it. The story is apocryphal. We have no proof of it. It does, however, point to the allure of Country Sweet. And let me tell you, there's no point buying the sauce in a jar. Sorry Mom, I know you gave me a jar as a present, but it's just not the same. Part of the taste of Country Sweet wings is the plastic seat beneath your butt, the fluorescent lights, the slightly-sick look of everyone at your table. I think Daniel Pinkwater has a passage in the Alan Mendelsohn book that describes a similar eating venue (I don't want to call it a "restaurant"). I could dig up that quote and we could quote it. Oh, at some point in this discussion we should talk about made-up food in books that you've always wanted to eat, cuz that's literary.

DS: Have you seen Defending Your Life? The Albert Brooks movie?

JR: Yes, but I'm not sure why that is relevant. It was in Mother that we learn of the protective ice covering on ice cream.

DS: Because there's a scene in it where Brooks is eating with Rip Torn. There are several discussions about how some people in Judgment City use more of their brains than other people. Rip Torn eats this little tidbit of something, and Brooks nags him; he wants to try a piece. But Torn uses some large percentage of his brain, and to dumber people, the food tastes like crap.

JR: Literally like crap? Or just bad? What does the food look like in the scene? Maybe we can link to a youtube video.

DS: I think it's kind of small and nondescript, whereas regular people get to eat as much regular food as they want. I love the idea that smart people like crappy tasting food, or that if your brain isn't developed, you think it tastes bad. Kris and I are always quoting from that movie. One of my favorites: Brooks goes to a club, and there's a comedian on stage. Of course, all the people in the audience are dead, so the comedian's banter is odd. Plus, he's not funny at all. He asks Brooks, "How did you die?" and he says, "On stage—like you."

JR: I tried to read Albert Brooks's novel 2030 , which takes place in a future where health care has pretty much bankrupted everybody. It made me so depressed I had to stop. But the good thing about that was, I COULD stop. I’m allowed to stop reading a book if I want to. Anyway, that thing about smart people having different taste in food, that must come from things like caviar or fine wine, foods that don’t taste very good unless you “develop your palate” or some such bullshit. I'm sure we could make a list of foods that are bad when you're a kid and good when you're an adult and vice versa. Like, Spaghetti-Os are good when you’re a kid, and disgusting when you’re an adult (though Ross often eats the kids’ leftover Spaghetti-Os, which is just gross). Or seltzer water. I thought seltzer was horrible when I was a kid, but on the other hand, I remember when I lived in New York City I overheard a little kid in a stroller ask his mom for some seltzer. So maybe if you grow up in New York City you automatically have a more sophisticated palate.

DS: Stinky cheese, gorgonzola.

JR: I would have spit out seltzer in horror until the age of probably twenty. And here’s this kid, little enough to be in a stroller so three or four at the oldest, asking for it.

DS: I don't really like seltzer, even now.

JR: I also remember hearing a kid in New York whining "I want lo mein!" the way non-New-York kids might whine "I want chicken nuggets." But! We are being positive! We are talking about things we love! And I do love New York, and I love Eli's Bread in New York, those long loaves that are really chewy and oniony like a bagel crossed with a French baguette. It’s the sourdough onion bread in this catalog:

DS: I like quail. Kids don't eat quail.

JR: On another topic, but still things we love, I'm listening to Etta James right now.

DS: I listened to her album Tell Mama about 79 times in a row last year.

JR: She 's making me like the song "Stormy Weather" again. Should we talk about the Pittsburgh salad?

DS: I don't love those, though. I haven't even had a Pittsburgh salad.

JR: Okay, how about just the Pittsburgh habit of putting fries in things and on things. Don’t they put fries right on top of hamburgers? And a Pittsburgh salad has fries in it?

DS: Well, they do love fries here. At the ballpark, you can get a giant plate of fries with chili, cheese, jalapenos, etc.

JR: Celie asked me today, "Guess what I'm going to have to eat at my birthday party?" (Her birthday is months away.) So I made some guesses that were all wrong. I asked for a hint. She said, something that goes with fries. I said: hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches? Uh ... what? The answer was dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Of course. Changing the subject, the best pizza is Giordano's in Martha's Vineyard. The best donuts are at the top of Pikes Peak. The best iced coffee is at the little coffee nook in the student center of Colorado College.

DS: Mineo's pizza, about 3/4 of a mile from here, is the best.

JR: No.

DS: People have it FedEx'd to them everywhere.

JR: If you say so. Someday I will visit you and Kris and find out. A very good topping on pizza is thinly cut eggplant, fried in breadcrumbs.

DS: Eggplant?

JR: Yes. I think we might have had it while you were here. From Borriello Brothers? It looks like rectangles of sausage, but it's eggplant, and it’s really good on super-skinny-crust pizza.

DS: Ah. I just remembered something:

JR: That I'm right?

DS: How I judge the quality of a restaurant. I use the same dish across multiple restaurants, the dish that should be good at any decent place. For example, I judge Mexican restaurants by enchiladas.

JR: My decider for Mexican would be chile rellenos. But that probably wouldn’t work, because different places do it so differently. But on the other hand, since that’s definitely what I’m going to order, judging by the chile rellenos would work for me.

DS: I judge donut places by jelly donut. Some say glazed would be a better choice, but I disagree completely.

JR: That's all wrong. I don't like jelly donuts. Oh, speaking of jelly donuts, I'm reading Fat Men from Space to Celie right now, and she totally wants to get a tooth radio.

DS: You would have to have someone else try the jelly donut then.

JR: Yes, I'd have to bring along a ringer. Will would do it.

DS: Dunkin' Donuts basically sucks, in part because their jelly donut sucks. It's harder to be sure that they suck if you try just their glazed.

JR: When we were on the east coast for a vacation, we saw so many Dunkin’ Donuts shops that the kids had a game where they tried to hold their breath between them. This was not actually possible, but gives you an idea of how many there were. We don't have Dunkin’ Donuts in Colorado.

DS: I can walk to one in 3 minutes, but I prefer to drive to the place that has red velvet donuts with icing.

JR: The best donuts, besides the plain ones at the top of Pikes Peak, are the blueberry cake donuts from the Donut Mill in Woodland Park. They are only available ... I was about to say "seasonally" but that would be nonsense. They are only available sometimes.

DS: Right. But you haven't tried red velvet ones with icing.

JR: What is the big deal about red velvet?! WHY DO PEOPLE GO SO CRAZY FOR RED VELVET? It doesn't taste like ANYTHING. It's like eating AIR that has a lot of calories.

DS: It's damn good. It tastes like cake. And yes: I tried the jelly donut first.

JR: It is a complete WASTE of a dessert, a description I normally reserve for flan.

DS: No. It tastes like donuts, in a donut.

JR: No. Red velvet SUCKS.

DS: Right. And blueberry cake is super special.

JR: Godiva had a red velvet flavored truffle. Worst truffle they ever made.

DS: Well, it doesn't make sense to make a red velvet truffle.

JR: We're getting too negative, talking about flan, yuck

DS: This place also has a donut filled with chocolate buttercream.

JR: I was about to say something so grandpa-ish like "I remember when donuts were 35 cents!", but I will refrain from saying that.

DS: Assuming chocolate buttercream doesn't taste like nothing to you, it's really good

JR: Chocolate buttercream is not nothing! Can you name my reference? M.... Mo....

DS: Mötley Crüe.

JR: Moo… Moon....

DS: Moonstruck.

JR: Yup. "Our marriage is not nothing."

DS: Mötley Crüe said that too.

JR: So anyway, what else are we going to expound upon? I would like to praise sauteed brussels sprouts with walnuts. I would also like to put in a word about the combination of beets and goat cheese. Also, we should have a lettuce-off. Radicchio! Arugula! Endive! MACHE!!!

DS: Arugula is inedible. It’s the weeds I pull out of my back yard.

JR: Have you had mache? It's a type of lettuce. It's seasonal (like the blueberry cake donuts). It's very soft.

DS: I will pass.

JR: It looks kind of like bunches of clover. It's very delicious, with a mild flavor. Is there any lettuce you would enter into the lettuce-off? Or am I going to have to run this whole thing myself?

DS: I am not inspired by lettuce, even if it's seasonal.

JR: Perhaps it would be appropriate at this juncture to link to my poem “The Lettuce Connoisseur,”

DS: I think this blog should be called The People's Cort, by the way.

JR: Bud Cort.

DS: They were showing Harold and Maude at one of our theaters recently.

JR: I would gladly cook dinner for the Bud Cort of Harold and Maude and serve it through a strangely sexual sculpture.

DS: I expect not to be invited.

JR: You can distract Maude!

DS: Bud Cort was good in Brewster McCloud, too.

JR: No, he wasn't. Wait, am I thinking of the right movie? Is he a creepy monk?

DS: No. He's basically Harold.

JR: OK, what movie am I thinking of then? Was there a movie of The Chocolate War and he was in it? Yup.

DS: I never saw that.

JR: Don't bother. When this Etta James CD is over, I'm going to bed.

DS: Food is too broad a topic. Maybe we could just write about making pies. Or something more specific than everything.

JR: We could talk about making pies. The trouble is, I don't make my own crust, and that is shameful. But I still make pies, and nobody here complains, so shut up!

DS: The difficulty of making your own crust is overrated, even if you do it the way the crazy lady in my book does it. She suggests that you press foil into the pie pan, press the crust into the foil, bake the crust, freeze the crust, remove it from the pan (by lifting out the foil), remove it from the foil, and put it back into the pan before filling it. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually brilliant. Nothing will ever leak through the crust. Ever.

JR: Amy also says making the crust isn’t that hard. But no matter how easy it is, it’s harder than using the refrigerated kind of pre-made crust, and much messier.

DS: True.

JR: If I use refrigerated crust, I might make as many as two pies a month. If I had to make my own crust maybe there would be one pie per year

DS: There are pies I've refused to make because they're too easy.

JR: Well, that is just perverse. Do they taste bad if they are made easy? Is this a question for the ages?

DS: It's just boring.

JR: I see, you make pie for the joy of making pie, the challenge. Whereas I make pie because it causes Ross and Will to get those swirly-eyes that cartoon characters get.

DS: If I'm making it at my mother-in-law's house, I'll do it based on whatever she has. But on my own, I won't do pumpkin pie, or maybe I'll get the pumpkin without any of the spices in it.

JR: I am on my last Etta James song now.

DS: Which album?

JR: At Last! (It has the exclamation mark.) I say I'm listening to a CD but actually I'm listening to iTunes now that I have uploaded the CD, which came from the library.

DS: Try Tell Mama soon. It is my favorite southern R&B album, done in Alabama, even though most of her stuff was made in Chicago.

JR: I will.

DS: There's even an odd version of "I Got You Babe" on it; almost decent.

JR: !

DS: My favorite song on there is "Just a Little Bit." "Security" is another good one.

JR: I sang "Respect" for the kids this morning because they were squabbling and wanted to tell them to treat each other with respect. Celie got really wide-eyed and was like "sing that again!"

DS: Good.

JR: And then she asked if I'd just made that song up. So, that tells me I need to work on their music education.

DS: "Do Right Woman" is on Tell Mama. I think every female singer recorded "Do Right Woman" around that time.

JR: I love “Do Right Woman,” so I will get that CD from the library next.

* * *

Daniel M. Shapiro is a schoolteacher who lives in Pittsburgh. He is the author of three chapbooks: The 44th-Worst Album Ever (NAP Books, forthcoming), Trading Fours (Pudding House Press, forthcoming), and Teeth Underneath (FootHills Publishing). He is the co-author of Interruptions (Pecan Grove Press), a collection of collaborations with Jessy Randall. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Chiron Review, Gargoyle, RHINO, Sentence, and Forklift, Ohio. His poetry website is

Jessy Randall is the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College. Her stories, poems, poetry comics, and other things have appeared in Asimov's, McSweeney's, Mudfish, Rattle, Sentence, and West Wind, and her collection A Day in Boyland (Ghost Road, 2007) was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. She has a new collection, Injecting Dreams into Cows, forthcoming from Red Hen in 2012. With Danial M. Shapiro, she is the co-author of Interruptions: Collaborative Poems (Pecan Grove 2011). Her website is, and she blogs about library shenanigans at She lives with her family in Colorado Springs.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When I was fourteen or so, my mother started having fits of dementia, brought on by Huntington's disease. The fits started with her moaning as though she were in great pain. None of us could figure out what was causing it. She was more or less healthy, aside from the obvious. The first time was at night. She started howling around two a.m. My older brother and I were home and both came running to find my father sitting on the edge of the bed holding her hand, perplexed. Eventually, she fell back asleep.

It was a haunting noise. Inhuman and suffering, it sounded like a damned soul in some Bosch painting. It lasted for a few weeks and then just as suddenly stopped. We couldn’t find anything wrong. Neither could the nurses who came to check on her. We decided it was a phase.

She had several phases. Early on, she ate onions with everything. Onions with peanut butter, onions in her ice cream, she would cut a whole onion up and eat it raw. During another phase she watched the local ABC affiliate on TV exclusively, which was broadcast from the same town where she’d gone to college. She would get out of bed, turn on the TV and stare. Once, the antenna went out, and we couldn’t get reception for a couple days. On these days she would rise, turn on the TV and stare at the static for a few moments, then turn it off and go back to bed. I once tried to change the channel, and looked up to find her charging me like an enraged bull, her walker swinging after me as she pushed me out of the way. This was more surprising than painful, and after she changed the channel back, she sat back down and proceeded to stare out the window.

The moaning phase was the most disturbing, though. I couldn’t stand it because there was no way to appease her. She howled until her voice gave out or she fell asleep. Whenever it started, I left. Sometimes she stood at the door, her moans echoing out over the hills. Coming home from school, I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at our house, dreading what I might find inside.

One Saturday, I left her standing at the door, until she finally gave up and went back to watching TV. I was walking down the hill from my house when I came upon my cousin.

My cousin, one of the ones I'd gone to the Baptist church with, had heard the call and was to become a preacher. In going to youth group, I’d always felt uncomfortable around him. I viewed him as my better, because of the call, and in general because he was older and his family was more well-off. But his apparent sincerity was embarrassing, like a religious hall monitor, or the kid left in charge of taking down names when the teacher steps out of class.

His mother rented out a trailer on a plot of land just down the hill from my father’s house, though it was vacant at the time. It was part of the family land, an area consisting of stock ponds, pasture for cattle, and steep ridges that I liked to walk.

He was coming out of the trailer, which they were remodeling for a new tenet, when I met him.

“How are you?” he asked. "Haven't seen you in church lately."

Maybe he saw it in my eyes, but obviously I wasn’t doing well. He reached into
his car and pulled out a Bible.

“You know," he said, "even if it seems like no one else does, Jesus loves you. You have to accept Jesus into your heart. That way, nothing can hurt you. Nothing is stronger than our savior.”

I was shocked that he would preach to me, but at the same time, he struck a chord. Maybe this was what that whole religion thing was about, I thought. I had been going to church all my life, but I hadn't really ever felt anything spiritual. In Sunday school, I was much more afraid of the preachers' wives than of hell. And in church proper, I was mostly just bored, and a lot of what the preacher said seemed not only dense, but insincere. More often than not, they talked about tithes and how we should give money. Everything else seemed to be an abstraction I couldn't get my head around. I didn't see how any of it applied to the real world. It had never touched me.

My cousin talked to me about the story of Job, and said that sometimes God tests us; sometimes we have to suffer, but it doesn't mean that He isn't there, watching out for us. My eyes began to tear. It made sense to me. I understood, suddenly, what I was supposed to have been feeling all those Sundays.

As my cousin talked, I felt something open up inside me like a cramping muscle suddenly loosening. All of the neglect, the frustration, the anger, the unfairness of my life flowed out of me.

“Will you accept Jesus into your heart?” he asked.

I could hear the water of the stock pond lapping against its banks behind us. A train passed on the far side of the pasture. It was like the whole world was listening.

“Yes,” I said, staring into his face.

“Will you accept Jesus into your heart?”


“Then be saved.”

I felt a warmth enter my body, replacing the void left by the exit of my anger, my
fear. A smile spread over my face and I no longer felt the tears on my cheeks. Everything was warm and safe. Everything was going to be all right.

He talked to me for fifteen minutes or so and then looked at his watch.

“I have to go. It was good talking to you, Cortney. You should come to worship with us tomorrow,” he said.

"I will," I said, as he got in his car.

What a good preacher he’ll be, I thought. I felt better than I could remember
feeling. Jesus. Jesus would help me. I started back up that steep hill.

I felt strangely content as I climbed. I almost looked forward to going back home, helping Mom until my father came home. This was how I was supposed to feel, at least, and I tried very hard to feel it. I knew that it would be well after dark before my father stumbled in drunk. Who knew when my brother and sister would show up. But Jesus would be there.

Mom was getting worse and worse. She’d been falling down for no reason lately, her muscle coordination less and less reliable. She hadn't left the house in months. She could hardly do for herself anymore. Lots of days, if it wasn’t for me cooking, she wouldn’t have anything to eat. Life was getting hard, and it was turning me bitter. I begrudged her the time I had to spend caring for her. I hated being left there, alone with her, and I felt guilty for my ill feelings towards her. And friends? Try bringing someone into the house who didn't have to be there. See what he would think of us. The last one lasted for a little over an hour before she chased him out, screaming. The whole situation was too big for me to make sense of. But now Jesus would be there. He would help.

With every step I felt stranger about the whole thing. When I stepped in the door, my mother saw me and started howling again. I tried to calm her down. I tried talking to her, asking what was wrong, but she only howled.

I checked the TV but it was on her favorite station. I made her a sandwich and offered it, but she pushed it away. I tried ignoring her, going into another room, but she followed me. As the minutes passed, I became more and more agitated. I started yelling at her.

"Shut up!" I yelled. "Shut up!"

She stopped for a moment, but only a moment.

I played music and screamed back at her.

"You won't beat me," I said. "I can overcome this." And she kept howling, following me around and howling until finally, back in the living room I pushed her away from me. She fell onto the couch and was shocked into silence.

I was appalled at myself for having pushed her, but at the same time, it had made her quiet. She tried to stand up and slipped awkwardly back down onto the couch.

There was a photo on the wall to her left from her and Dad's wedding. In it, she was smiling, sweet and pretty in an open and easy way. Her hair had been blond and long. I remembered all the old photos my sister and I used to go through in Mom's photo albums. Some of the styles were so dated they were almost funny. In some, she had big piles of hair shaped into beehives and waves. Others were more tasteful. She'd always been pretty. People acted like she was a movie star; something about her was too good to be here. Now on the couch, her hair was matted and dirty, greying and cut short for convenience.

I stepped towards her to help her up and she flinched. It shocked me and I went into the bathroom and locked the door to get away from her, and from the shame over what I'd done.

I remembered when I was a child that my aunt and cousins had invited me to birthday parties. They always gave the other kids presents so we wouldn’t feel left out, but they were always cheap things wrapped in nice paper with elaborate bows. I felt, then, hiding in the bathroom, as though I’d been given another elaborately wrapped gift, but when I unwrapped it, I discovered that there was nothing but box.

After a few minutes, my mother came to the bathroom door and banged against it with her walker. I kept quiet, hoping she would go away. I thought back on what my cousin had said earlier and knew that he had lied. Jesus wasn't there. There was no one in the house but me and her. If I was wrong, if Jesus was there, it didn't matter because it did me no good; all he was doing was watching. She’d believed all her life, and what had it got her? But she wasn't cursed; she was just a sick woman. Genetics had made her that way, not anything else. There was no devil, no savior, just a door that couldn't keep out the sound of her screaming.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What Thou Lovest Well Remains, With The Possible Exception Of Fire Maidens Of Outer Space

Deep down, to this day, I love sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the movie curtains to swing aside. A huge screen is revealed and the lights slowly dim. Then life springs onto the screen—big, bright images—but more than images—this is what comes alive before me—a world made of light. I can’t call this solely a love of movies, not exactly. The whole theater is part of it. Even today, though there usually aren’t curtains and the screen is not that big, every time I go to see a film, I feel it is saving my life.

So I thought I would try to respect that primary, primal movie-going experience, and capture a small part of its phenomenology. This is how I’m going to do it.

I was lucky to live a couple of blocks away from a big old theater—the Westmont—in south Jersey—where 50 cent matinees played every Saturday at noon. Two movies, cartoons, previews. Most of the movies I’ve seen there, I’ve seen only that one time. Here is approximately what I remember from three of them (Note: I (emphatically) do not recommend these movies. They are probably explodingly awful pieces of dreck. But some part of them lodged in my brain and filled me with awe. Go figure.)

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

The set up: Astronaut guys go to a moon of Jupiter or Saturn and find girls in tunics and one old guy.

What I remember, more or less: The main thing with this movie is the use of one of Alexander Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances (the Gliding Dance of the Maidens), also known as Stranger In Paradise by Al Alberts and The Four Aces. I have a hazy impression of fire maidens dancing around an altar or temple-y thing to the tune. But my only big visual takeaway from FMOS is the monster. This was a tall guy in a black leotard and what I remember as a really messed up monster face, all contorted flesh and uncombed hair. That sounds like a beatnik but it wasn’t. Specifically, I remember how the monster gained entrance to the-whatever-it-was palace, temple, city. The (let’s say) palace is surrounded by an electrified fence, which the monster is afraid of. This keeps him at bay. Then (as I remember it) he sees one of the astronauts getting around the electricity by putting a ladder over the fence. The monster pushes a tree over and against the wall and sparks fly and the electrified part of the wall shorts out. Then he climbs over wreaks havoc. People get killed. But I was thinking “I am totally going to get over an electrified fence someday with that little trick.”

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Goobers (never Raisinettes), Sugar Babies (never Sugar Daddy).

What’s great about Fire Maidens of Outer Space? Aside from the title, that music. And, slightly, the cheesecake tunics the fire maidens dance around in. If you’re about 10 years old, male, and had lived a sheltered life by today’s standards, it was totally “Hotcha!”

Voyage to the Seventh Planet

The set up: Boy I still cannot tell you what the fuck this movie is about. I remember the poster had a giant rat-bat-spider on it that played a really minor role in the movie, and that’s about it. I gather it was about a crew of astronaut guys who land on the seventh planet. The seventh planet is, according to my count, the hilarious-to-13-year-old-boys Uranus. Which may be why it wasn’t called Voyage to Uranus (snicker). I think it started on earth, maybe with an ominous “What the hell is going on out there on Planet 7?” But, like a lot of these memories, I could be making that up.

What I remember, more or less: Not much. Astronaut guys land, getting out of their aerodynamic spaceship. It seems the Seventh Planet is basically a big Christmas tree farm. Weird, creepy, uncanny things happen, and they leave.

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Hershey bar with almonds, Mr. Goodbar, Jujubes.

What’s great about Voyage to the Seventh Planet? There were a few indelible images or scenes which, looking back, felt like some really disturbing surrealism was going on in this movie. I suspect what I thought was crazy, dream-like surrealism was probably total technical and artistic incompetence wedded to a $25.75 budget, but there you are.

So, at some point the crew reaches some kind of barrier and one of the guys puts his hand through it. It gets stuck and when they yank it out it’s frosted, blue, and frozen solid. AAAAGGGGHHH! You know, that could really happen in the cold reaches of the outer solar system. Then there’s the giant rat-bat-spider, which even then seemed to be both an unconvincing puppet and an utterly terrifying nightmare come to life. But the really indelible image that I took away from Journey to the Seventh Planet is the main alien: a super-brainy, mind-controlling blob. It looked like a bubbling vat of chunky Bolognese sauce, with an eye in the middle. Even now, I can’t look at a pot of tomato sauce coming to a boil on the stove without flashing back to the mind-controlling alien of Uranus (snicker). And how do I explain that to people? I don’t explain it. I don’t mention it, ever.

Giant from the Unknown

The set up: Alright, I couldn’t even remember the name of this one. I had to figure it out from googlizing vague descriptions. Giant from the Unknown is in black and white. A [giant] conquistador is brought back to life from suspended animation. He’s covered in mud and is wearing one of those conquistador helmets. He gets thrown over a waterfall at the end. The Giant from the Unknown (wouldn’t that be Spain though? I guess The Giant from Spain (I adore you) didn’t cut it), has a lot of outdoor filming in what is obviously really uncomfortable working conditions for the actors.

They’re out in the mountains and forest somewhere in northern California. It’s cold, it’s wet, there’s snow on the ground, all of which is palpable to me sitting in the theater.

What I remember: Pretty much the above, and possibly not even that much. I don’t remember any of the plot, any of the characters except for “el G. from the U.”, or much else. And yet the scenes of the damp hills splattered with snow and a couple of images still feel totally gripping. Again, the general incompetence, lack of continuity, plot holes, incoherence and low budget of the production is both why I don’t remember more of it (Hey, I remember ALL of Jason and the Argonauts) and also the origin of its allure and hold on me.

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Sno-caps, Boston Baked Beans.

What’s great about Giant from the Unknown? A lizard or frog jumps out of a rock when a scientist breaks it open. A fucking living reptile and/or amphibian, people. I had a discussion about this scene at school sometime after seeing the move. Was this fifth grade? Maybe. Anyway, we boys decided that this could totally really happen, because there’s a real scientific name for it: suspended animation. In fact we were sure it had happened somewhere, so the movie was based on scientific truth and real facts! To which: whoa. And, as above, the wet, dingy landscape and cold was an unintentional cinema verite background that chilled me.

There’s more, lots more: The Werewolf, mole men, giant grasshoppers, giant snails, westerns. Also The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Great Escape, Project Crossbow, Goldfinger, Dr. No, Cheyenne Autumn, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, and onward and upward. Movies are a mother to me.

You know what else I love. Waffles.

* * *

Michael Gushue co-curates the floating Poetry Mutual Reading Series in Washington, DC, runs the micro-press Beothuk Books and is co-founder of Poetry Mutual/Vrzhu Press, a poetry incubator that sponsors events, publishes books and builds community among writers and audiences. His work has appeared online and in print, most recently in the journal Gargoyle and the online journal Locuspoint. His books are “Gathering Down Women,” from Pudding House Press and “Conrad” from Souvenir Spoon Books. You can hear him read some stuff and talk to Grace Cavalieri on The Poet and The Poem ( He lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, DC.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Baptist church was the biggest building in my home town, except for the rice dryers out on the highway. People said the church had been an impressive building years ago, before they'd renovated it. Now the brick was covered with a gaudy white layer that looked like a bunch of pebbles cemented together; four stories of this that seemed to swell at the top, leaning over the elementary school next door like a wedge of brie standing on its point.

My father was an atheist who lectured us about how NASA had sent rockets into space and never seen heaven. Though it didn't seem so at the time, his rants were more directed at making us think for ourselves and not be bogged down in the fear and ignorance he saw around us. He associated Christians with the lowest common denominator; the people who feared black cats as minions of Satan, and lived in a sort of expectant fear that any day now, the world would crumble into ruin and everyone but them would be lost.

But my mother was a devout Christian and insisted that we attend church. My father's only victory was that he refused to go himself. So, thanks to her fear for our souls, every Wednesday night my sister and I went for service, and every Sunday morning I was lumped in with just under a dozen children of the richest and most affluent people in town and forced to go to Sunday School.

One of my earliest memories of Sunday School is of the collection envelopes. Every week we had to bring one, a thin little envelope printed with heavy black lines on which our parents could print their names, address, and the amount they were donating. A box sat in the corner with a slit in the top, and at the beginning of class, we all lined up under the hard eyes of the two preachers’ wives who ran the class.

“Very good,” they would say as we dropped in our envelopes. “Now go take your seat.”

And we went and sat in the chairs in the center of the room, the girls with their dresses flattened neatly over their legs, the boys fidgeting in their khakis.

Once, I was running late and forgot my donation. Being so used to the ritual, I automatically lined up with the other children and approached the donation box.

“I don’t have a donation envelope,” I said, realizing suddenly what had happened. “My mom forgot.”

“Are you sure?" One of the wives said. "I know for a fact that you were told to take home donation envelopes. Well, you can use a new one. Fill it out yourself. I can’t believe you’d waste church money like that.”

I was confused and ashamed. "I don't have any money," I said.

She glared at me. “So you just decided to spend it on candy? Did you stop by the store on the way here today?”

“No,” I said.

“Turn out your pockets,” she said.

The room stopped en masse to stare at me. She searched my pockets and found nothing.

“Well,” she said. “You must’ve already eaten it.”

I sat quietly in a chair, a little away from the other kids. None of them looked at me for the rest of the class, and I was glad of it.

I tried from then on to always remember my donation. Once, some months later, a similar situation occurred, but I had fifty cents that my father had given me to buy supplies at school. So I quickly grabbed an envelope, filled it out, stuck the change in, and took it to the box, aware the whole time of how much heavier it was than usual, since it had change instead of paper bills, of the way it clinked when I dropped it in. I sat through the rest of class terrified that they would call me out but nothing was said.

Class was often conducted in the form of a question and answer session in which the preachers' wives asked questions and watched us struggle for a while until they stepped in and answered. The questions were about Bible readings that I was too lazy to do. I didn't read the Bible at all until many years later.

“Cortney," they might ask, "why were Adam and Eve banished from the Garden?”

To which I might reply, “Because they were naked?”

“And how did they come to know that they were naked?”

I paused. “Because they were cold?”

I would then be sent to sit in the corner, no longer participating with the class. That would have been a fine reward if it weren’t for the lecture that preceded it.

“Really, Cortney, I don’t see how you can think this is funny,” they would say.

“I don't.” Which was true. Nothing could've been less amusing.

“You mean you don’t know? You really don’t know why Adam and Eve were forced to leave the garden? How can you not know that?”

I didn’t dislike sitting in the dunce chair. Being forbidden from participating in class meant that I could relax. Staring at the rest of the class from outside was supposed to be a punishment, but I enjoyed it. It was more interesting to watch the preachers' wives yelling at kids than it was to be yelled at. The children of the richest parents, for example, were never yelled at. They were rarely asked questions, either. Occasionally, one of them raised a thin arm and volunteered an answer and that was enough. It was the poorer kids who were singled out, though of these, even the poorest wasn’t wearing the dark blue Wrangler jeans from Wal-Mart that were all my family could afford. The rest of the families at least made the effort to look well-off, which meant getting their clothes from the mall in Jonesboro, a forty-five minute drive. Mine was considered doomed and damned; too lazy to make the effort.

Once, while exiled to the dunce chair, I found myself staring at the wood grain door. It was a simple, old hollow door that had weathered many grubby children’s hands. It would’ve looked fine in a home, but in the austere setting of the church, it was out of place. I was bored, and my eyes kept coming back to it until I realized that within the grain, I could see the vague outline of a man’s head. He wore an expression of sadness, and I felt suddenly uncomfortable, thinking this. I stared at the face for a long time, tracing the details of the eyes and mouth with my eyes, and tuning out the noise of the class. It was calming, and for once, when Sunday School was over, I felt glad. It was a kind of art, making a face out of the patterns of lines. I had seen faces in doors before. I started doing it everywhere, looking for images and patterns within things; trying to see the world around me differently.

I considered telling the preachers’ wives about the face, but I didn’t know how to explain it to them. They might not see it, and they would probably accuse me of not paying attention. Or worse, they might see it as a sign. There was a house on the other side of town in which someone claimed to have seen three crosses through the frosted glass of a door. Cars lined up for blocks for the next few weeks as people came from every state to witness what they considered to be a miracle. My father said that he'd talked to the man who installed the door, and he had said that you could see all sorts of things in those kind of windows because of the way the glass was frosted.

"One woman thought she could see her dead cat in her door," he'd said.

* * *

During the summers, my aunt volunteered me to go with her two sons to Baptist youth camp and to the youth group. I don’t remember much about the camp except that most of the time seems to have been spent in a swimming pool. I couldn’t swim, which left me stranded in the shallow end alone because all of the other kids could demonstrate their prowess well enough to be allowed in the deep water.

I remember the youth group as being a sort of Sunday School for older kids. We were led by teenagers, who arranged games and mostly just killed time. As soon as we left the car, my cousins lost interest in me and I was left to myself. Soon after I started going, it was decided that we would have a water balloon fight. To do this, we all had to bring balloons, and we all had to wear shorts. I didn’t own a pair of shorts. My father wasn’t particularly thrilled about this whole church thing, and dishing out money to buy shorts I would wear one time was more than he was willing to do.

“Where are your shorts?” they asked when I showed up in jeans.

“I don’t have shorts.”

“Everyone has shorts,” they said.

“I’ll just wear pants.”

“No, you can’t wear pants. You’ll ruin them.”

“It’s just water,” I said.

“And it wouldn’t be fair to let you throw balloons at the other kids when they
can’t throw balloons at you. I guess you just won’t be able to participate. I’m sorry, but we did say to wear shorts.”

And so I sat inside the air-conditioned church and watched the other children being pummeled by the older kids, out in the summer heat. There was an old refrigerator inside, and I found some sodas and drank one.

* * *

It was understood that when one reached a mature age, around ten, one could leave Sunday school and begin attending regular church sessions. This required a baptism, as I had never had one.

I was terrified of baptism. The elder preacher was a thin, fading old man, his heavy white head was large and round as he leaned out over the parishioners and mumbled damnation. I knew that he would drop me. I would drown in the baptismal pool. This was a common fear. My sister waited until well into her teens to be baptized. She wouldn't admit it, but I was certain this was because she was afraid.

Perhaps you’ve seen Baptist churches in movies or on TV. In those churches, the preachers sway, choirs sing, old ladies get up and run around, dancing with the spirit. Baptisms happen in rivers. The preacher stands, holding against the tide, while the faithful wade out and are dunked, cleansed of their sins, and everyone sings. There was none of that here. We used a tub beside the pulpit. Rivers are dirty and there are never enough places to park.

On her day, my sister, draped in a white robe, was led out before the audience. She was fourteen and nearly as tall as the preacher. He asked her if she renounced all sin. She said yes, and then he grabbed her and dunked her backwards into the water. His arms shook and she went down fast. He struggled to lift her out of the water, but he was having problems. The tub was narrow enough that she could grab the sides, and she was able to push herself up and out. He stared at her, and the congregation started singing while someone handed her a towel. That was enough for me. Regardless of the fear for my soul, I remained unbaptized.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

On Something I Love: The Poem as Friend
by Joseph Ross

We met in a basement classroom. I was an eager ninth grader when this poem and I became friends. William Butler Yeats’ “When You Are Old” lives very close to my heart and it never strays far. I have loved this poem like a dear friend, ever since I first read it as a high school student.

In twelve perfectly crafted lines, Yeats offers us a most tender love poem, a darkly contemplative whisper from one lover who has died, to the remaining lover who lives. Yeats begins by gently placing us in an intimate, domestic moment and leaves us gazing into an eternity of memory and space, beckoning us to remember.

The poem opens in a quiet experience of solitude. A widowed lover sits alone, before a fire, with the fatigue that life and loss sometimes give. The lover is urged, by the companion who has already gone in death, to “take down this book,/ and slowly read,” and to remember. The absent lover beckons the living one to recall youth’s beauty, to recall the changing passions that came earlier in life. But mostly, the deceased lover pleads with the living one to remember the most honored compliment: that “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”

Can there be a more honest and abiding love? In the midst of ever-changing human emotions, the only love that truly anchors us through life is the love that honors our traveling selves, our changes, our sorrows. It is easy to love the fresh and attractive one. But it takes a decision to love a person who is changing, who knows and names the sorrows of the world and who wears them in the skin. At the heart of this poem, a deceased lover simply asks the living one to remember.

The poem’s final stanza takes us on a dizzying trajectory. The living lover bends down to stir the “glowing bars” in the fireplace, and from there we fly to the “mountains overhead” outside this quiet moment, and then farther still, into the vastness of space, where “Love…hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

This poem has been my friend for many years because it is true. We are all pilgrims and we all change. In the flurry of our wanderings, we yearn for someone to love us, not in spite of our changes, but because of them. This love requires intention and practice. It is an act of the will over time, not of the moment. I have been fortunate to find this kind of love in my life. Yeats’ poem instructs me to nourish and cherish it.

I also love the places in this poem. I can sit before a fire, in silence, and stare into its flames and embers for hours. The delicate quality of flame contains a rare beauty and energy. Similarly, I can stand outside at night and stare into the black forever of space sprayed with stars. In those moments, you know your place, your perfect smallness.

That William Yeats was a genius, I take as doctrine. He wrote “When You Are Old” as a relatively young man, in his late twenties. This poem was part of his second collection of poems titled “The Rose,” published in 1893. Yeats’ love life has been widely commented on. For most of his life he passionately loved Maud Gonne, who would reject his love in favor of the Irish revolution. Later in his life, Yeats loved and married Georgie Hyde-Lees, with whom he had two children. Perhaps “When You Are Old” prefigures that more mature and stable love. Some years ago, I stood at Yeats’ grave in the Drumcliffe churchyard, in County Sligo, Ireland, and thanked him for the friendship of this poem.

Regardless of how this poem emerged from Yeats’ life, it has found a permanent place in mine. Its quiet truth can calm and settle me when I am anxious and scattered. Its lean craft can focus me when I am uncertain. I can often hear this beloved friend, this poem, reminding me to remember.

* Photo of Yeats by George Beresford

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Joseph Ross is part of the vibrant Washington, D.C. literary community. His first book, Meeting Bone Man, will be released in March/April of 2012. His poems appear in many journals and anthologies including Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Full Moon on K Street, and Drumvoices Revue. He co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib. He has read in the Library of Congress' Poetry-at-Noon Series and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He directs the Writing Center at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and writes at