Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Poet O: Prologue

A light rain outside wakes me from a heavy sleep. Silently I slip from the warm bed without waking my lover. I dress in the dark and leave without turning on a light.

Outside I hail a taxi, the only car on the street. The driver is hidden by the dark. He says nothing when I give him the address. The car speeds through the night. All the traffic lights are green. I fall asleep.

When I wake up the cab is stopped, stuck in traffic by the Park. The driver is gone. I look out the window and see cars all round, but nothing is moving. The street is getting lighter. It's the moment before the day begins. I try to get out and find the door jammed. I throw my weight at it and manage to force it open just enough for me to crawl out.

When I stand up I find myself in the middle of the street, in gridlock. Cars are bumper to bumper as far back as I can see down the street. Ahead, the same, except that the street ends at the park a few hundred yards ahead. Nothing but me moves. There are no drivers and no passengers in any of the cars.

I walk toward the park, picking my way between the cars. The Park has overgrown it's borders and spills out into the street that once defined it's edge. Trees are growing in the sidewalk, on the street, between cars. Soon I am climbing over big roots, brushing away branches. I trip over an embedded root as I enter the Park and fall on my face.

When I get up the sun has come up. The Park is full of people. It's morning and nothing has changed. I look back for the jungle and it is gone. Traffic flows by on the street. A hand on my shoulder startles me.

It is a wild old man with stringy hair. He clutches a sheaf of rumpled papers. "A poem for a dollar.

"I am the Poet O."

"I don't need a poem."

"You need this poem. Sit here while I write."

I sat on the bench with him. He took out a Bic pen and opened his notebook to a blank page.

"You are a lover. I will write you a love poem."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Always Good

One of the challenges that I face in my job at the restaurant is being a good host. I try to smile and be nice at all times, but I know there are moments when I am busy or frustrated and my pleasant veneer will wear thin or crack altogether. It's pretty much the same for all of us in service. We all have our moments.

If, perhaps, you find yourself thinking that you would not have such a moment, ask yourself if you could greet and seat six hundred guests in a ten-hour period with a smile, a kind word and without cracking. Sara did just that, this past Thanksgiving Day. I, for one, am not foolish enough to claim that I could do the same.

There is just one other person that I can think of that never had one of those moments.

This was Ben Breiger, the host and long time manager of the Headliner's Club. Certainly in the ten years that I worked with him, he never lost his temper, he never made a Member feel bad or even awkward. And, while he might have had a few choice words of observation about the Members, he never complained openly about them either.

Now, my use of the term 'manager' is a little generous, since that title and responsibility at the Club actually fell to someone else, but as far as the Members were concerned, when he was on the floor, he was in charge.

And he was in charge, so to speak, of the Members. His customary seat was on a bench beside the front desk, which was situated at the entrance. When the Members got off the elevator, they would first check in with the hostess at the front desk.

As those formalities were being taken care of, Ben would rise and greet the Member with a broad and genuine smile. He would offer his hand and with the slightest bow, he would acknowledge the rest of the group. Often he would greet the Member's wife and children by name.

When asked how he was doing, he would always give the same response.

"Always good," he would say with an even intonation that made it feel true, "Always good." He always said it twice, too, as if that were part of the blessing that made it so.

When I started at the Headliner's Club back in 1983, Valery was the night hostess, so the day I met Valery was also the day I met Ben. I was working on the day shift back then. On my first night shift, I saw Valery immediately, of course, but made no note of Ben till later in the evening. About nine o'clock, when things had calmed down enough for me to go chat with that cute girl at the front desk, well you know that was the first thing I did.

That conversation sealed my fate. It was love at first sight. I am not sure if there is such a thing as 'true' love, but I do believe in love at first sight, because it's happened to me. Ben was my witness.

After talking with Valery for the first few precious moments of a lifetime, she got up to go deliver a message to someone in the kitchen. This may have been deliberate for all I know. I do know that it gave me the opportunity to change my life forever.

As Valery walked down the hall, past the elevators to the kitchen, I watched, naturally, completely smitten. Then I turned to Ben and said--most uncharacteristically for me--to a man I did not yet even know, "I'm going to marry her."

Ben laughed. This should have been expected, had I but known more about either my intended or him, but it seemed like a challenge to me. Again, uncharacteristically, I said, "I'll bet you $50.00"

To my surprise, Ben took that bet. To his surprise, he lost it.

I never did collect my $50 from Ben. It never seemed appropriate, since I was more than happy with my end of the deal anyway. Considering how much I've gained from these past twenty five years with my bride, Ben's fifty bucks was better off in his pocket than mine.

But I have gotten my money's worth, in just my recollections of Ben's demeanor. While I cannot model his personal style for many reasons--not the least of which is girth (he was a BIG man)--I can and do try to remember that when I am 'in charge', no matter how it's going, as far I am concerned, it's "Always good. Always good".

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Infinity of Zero

In a universe where matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, the only thing that is infinite is life.

From a finite number of atoms emerges a process of infinite transformation and consciousness. However improbable or temporary it may seem, consciousness is evidence that life is inevitable and infinite.

The proof of the inevitability comes from our thought existence ('I think,...'), while the infinite nature of life's force is the very constant by which all mathematical and empirical constructs are created.

In other words, life is like the c in E=mc2. Without it, even this simplest of calculations is impossible, but with it, the universe it describes acquires meaning.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Fun of Losing

The weekly football pool at work is a funny thing. We all want to win. Yet to listen to us talk about it, you might think that the real fun is in losing.

After all, the losers are in the majority and have much more to talk about than does the winner. Each loser has his or her story that details the unique circumstances that led to their demise, and each is eager to tell the others the tale.

"If New England hadn't gone for it on 4th and 2... If Roy Williams had just caught that ball... If Denver could just win one at home..."

If, if and more ifs. That's the fun part though. Think of the poor winner.

If the winner tries to talk about how it was just amazing that Indy came back to beat New England, or how clutch it was that Williams dropped not just one but three balls or how he just knew that Denver wasn't going to beat a bad team at home this weekend, well, we just don't want to know.

It's not that we have to deal with insufferable braggarts; so far every winner in our group has been, thankfully gracious about it. We certainly don't begrudge the winner the money. No, that's the goal and we all know it. Often there's a few words of congratulations, especially if it's their first win, but underlying that expression is the unspoken certainty that it will be us next week.

Now, if only Dallas...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dream Weavers

Great chains of causation are milled into fine threads over time and woven into intangible tapestries of meaning by our minds.

While it is not always obvious that causation and correlation are not one and the same, it is even less obvious that correlation did not exist before the mind, and that it will it cease to exist after humans have been erased.

The relationships between the actual threads of causation are created only in our minds. Without the mind, correlation would not exist.

The predisposal of the individual mind to believe in correlation appears to be supported by data recorded by others in a collective society. We write, then repeat history because the misperception that we have sufficiently woven the threads of causation into tapestries of meaning allows us to think we can predict the future.

Acting on the fundamentally false perception that we have successfully woven a tapestry of meaning inevitably leads to what we will eventually claim to be unexpected outcomes, better known as mistakes. Often they are the same ones.

These tapestries of misperception also allow us to pursue that fatally futile activity known as planning. Not so pretentious as prognosticating, planning nevertheless presupposes the hubris necessary to ensure that the outcome of our endeavors will always vary from the prediction.

Even if the plan and the outcome are close enough to allow us to travel to the moon and back, we should never lose sight of the fact that even on our best days, we are just fooling ourselves when we think it all makes sense.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I'll Stay

I'll stay
Till every ember's burnt away.

I'll stay
Till all the dust has blown away.

I'll stay
Till every dish is put away.

I'll stay
With you forever and a day.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I Fought the Law

I am proud to be an American.

I know it's got to sound geeky when I announce that after having just returned from a Formal Property Tax Protest Hearing at the Travis County Appraisal District, but that's just the way it is.

On a day when I have my list of Americans (including Rush Limbaugh, Joe Lieberman and Glenn Beck, just to name this week's top three) who make it difficult to find these feelings, it comes as a welcome relief.

With so much inane and destructive rhetoric coming from the right over the government's proposed health care reform, some might conclude that the three above named individuals no longer want to live in a country where their government is in control. As in, the American government. As in, 'I pledge allegiance to...'

Well, I've just come from a situation where my government, the American government is in control--I lost the hearing--but I in no way feel that I am being oppressed by it. Quite the opposite, actually. I am, as we liberals say, empowered.

I scheduled the Protest Hearing back in March, when we got a bill from our mortgage company for unpaid taxes. Since the money for taxes comes from an escrow account that we pay into monthly, we should never have a shortfall. Yet, when our taxes increased nearly 35%--in the middle of the Bush regime's skillful management of the trickle down theory of economics, by the way--we were caught without enough money in the escrow account.

In the goverment, they call this deficit spending. In real life, we call it you-owe-us-two-grand-so-we-are-charging-you-more-every-month spending, and believe it or not, nothing trickled down to save us. So, because we have no printing press in the basement (or even a basement) we have to pay more every month for a year to make up for the shortfall.

Hence the protest.

I went early, thinking I'd get caught in traffic, but I sailed right up I-35 to the Travis County Appraisal District building in far North Austin. I went in about a half an hour early and was directed to check in. There were a few people waiting in the hall, but not the crowd I was expecting. They asked my name and asked me to wait.

I hardly waited five minutes. Now, those loud complainers like Beck, for example, who claim that the government is not capable of serving it's citizens in a timely and organized manner just haven't been to one of these hearings. Or to vote, I suspect. Perhaps his last contact with the government was at the impound lot (he did have some sort of surgery, you know, 'down there'), but mine was in a government building. They came to get me early.

By 10:40 I was seated in a room with four individuals. There were three 'citizen judges' and a representative from the TAD. The center judge was an older man, and to his right was a middle aged woman and another man was on his left. The older man explained the process.

I would be given the opportunity to explain why my taxes should be changed, while the TAD's position would be taken by their representative. It would be a formal hearing, recorded and under oath. I raised my right hand and we got started.

The TAD had a simple position. They maintained that their number was right. The fellow said so and turned it over to me.

I had two points. First, I maintained that our taxes had unfairly jumped from 2007 to 2008. Second, I maintained that our house was unfairly valued as compared with our neighbors.

This information is public and available on the internet, so I downloaded it and created a spreadsheet as one of my exhibits. Other exhibits were tax records and photographs of the other houses and our house in '07 and '08 to prove that it hadn't changed substantially.

Well, I had my day in court, but they ruled against me.

In the first case, our jump in taxes had to do with our Homestead Exemption (another story) and it took place last year so we couldn't address it today, which was looking at 2009.

And on my second point, using real-time data--which I could see on a screen in front of me--they patiently showed me how our house is actually valued like others in our neighborhood--almost exactly down to the penny.

It was a good example of how, in America, transparency in government can and does happen. Giving citizens the right to have information about how they are being taxed is the way we work. In the end, I have to pay the taxes--just as I will have to die--but I don't begrudge the government any more than I do the Reaper.

I have to say, though, Death isn't nearly as polite nor as helpful as the citizens who served on that panel. They were most gracious and took all the time needed to make sure I understood and was comfortable with their decision. Then down came the gavel and I was shown out.

But not before the older judge took me downstairs to see if we could do something about the Homestead exemption. He took me to the right person and introduced me before leaving me to sort it out with her. It didn't change anything, but it did demonstrate the humanity of the process.

Like I said. I am proud to be an American.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Author of Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer, who is described by the New York Times in a review of his book recently as "Vegetarian activist", has some very compelling arguments about why eating animals is not in our best interest.

Unlike many such activists, not all of Foer's reasons have to do with our health. A lot of it has to do with the power of the meat industry in our society today. While he identifies and explains some of the important social and economic reasons for the dominance of the meat industry in our society, other authors such as Michael Pollan have been down this path already. It is the moral question that clearly concerns Foer the most.

He offers up the case of eating dogs--or, rather, why we don't--as a clear example of the role morals seem to play in food consumption.

Foer writes that, "Despite the fact that it's perfectly legal in forty-four states, eating "man's best friend" is as taboo as a man eating his best friend...Our taboo against dog eating says something about dogs and a great deal about us."

Indeed, it does. I cannot argue that our sense of morality has a great deal to do with why we don't eat dogs, but I do maintain that there is another, even more basic reason that "man's best friend" is not and never will be on the menu no matter how many free pounds of dog flesh go begging every day.


It's the same reason that early European arrivals to the Great North American Plain slaughtered the buffalo for their hides and drove the cattle to market for their meat. Buffalo just don't taste very good.

Considering that free range cattle that had been just been driven a thousand miles or more must not have tasted particularly good either, it is a clear testament to the fact that taste is literally a force of human nature. I think that taste is often simply overlooked when it comes to why we eat what we do.

I don't think we are just hardwired to eat anything and everything, nor do I think that morals alone is a force powerful enough to dictate what we will and won't eat. What I do think is that other less obvious factors such as taste guided us through the evolutionary maze. This idea has been explored by other scholars such as primatologist Richard Wrangham, who wrote Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

The taste imperative isn't just about dogs, either. Though it won't please their egos, nor is it about cats. Consider rabbits. I know that they are a staple food source in many places, but the fact is, even though they multiple like, well, rabbits, we just don't like the way they taste enough to make them a major part of our diet.

Pigs on the other hand, benefit from being smart but are severely handicapped by the fact that they taste so darned good. I know Charlotte was "One Fine Pig" but I've also had some mighty fine pork ribs in my day.

So, even though they are more dogs out there than pigs, more pigeons than chickens, even though the pork and poultry industries are literally killing the Mississippi Delta and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, we'll continue to eat McNuggets and pork chops for as long as they are around.

They will be around, I believe, because taste may be an even more considerable force than the economic and social engines that Foer rightly identifies as driving the meat industry today.


He comes to the door with a machete.
Did you think he'd bring a tranquilizer?

He has too much time for mercy.
Did you think he wouldn't want to play?

He burns, boils and bites.
Did you think it would feel like a kiss?

Monday, November 2, 2009


When the story about the 'balloon boy' all but halted the business of the nation for the requisite fifteen minutes last month, much was made of the fact that the boy 'disappeared' for six hours.

Six hours? When I was a kid growing up in Abilene, being out of sight for six hours was routine. On school year weekends and all summer long, I was a dawn-to-dusk outdoor kid. Checking in was a happenstance sort of thing, and, if I happened to eat lunch or dinner at a friend's house, it was common for me to be out all day. Not everyone had a phone nor was it common for kids to use it.

Times were different then, indeed, and though it was common for kids to be out all day unsupervised, given my particular propensity for wandering widely from the neighborhood, it's a wonder that the the police were not called in more than once to find me during my childhood.

There was one time that Lynda did call the police, however. I was nine. I had left the house early in the morning and did not return until after dark. I was gone for more than twelve hours.

I don't remember some very important things about that day, like what day of the week, or time of year it was, or why I even decided to do it that day, especially without telling my parents.

All I know is that one evening, I did decide to do it. It had to be in the evening, of course, because I know I planned it at least one day in advance. I know this because I am a planner. I plan everything; it's a habit that stretches back at least as far as this memory.

I remember that I was nine mostly because the story has been told over the years at family gatherings many times, reinforcing details like my age at the time and the fact that the police were indeed called. The fact that I never saw a policeman, either on my adventure nor when I arrived at home didn't raise any suspicion on my part till many years later, when it really better suited the story to have the cops involved than just a mad mom.

Oh and Lynda was mad. I'm getting ahead of myself here, but I can say that I've really only seen her madder at me one other time, and that time she hit me with a belt. That time (bouncing on the bed when I was six) was the one and only time she ever hit me. I didn't get hit after this incident, but believe me, I'd rather have gotten a beating with a belt than experience the angry tirade that faced me when I finally came home.

Given the admittedly casual oversight and potentially serious consequences that I was subject to, what then would have prompted me to stay out for more than twelve hours?

I was looking for a job.

I'll admit, today the thought of a nine year old boy making his way from business to business along a busy street akin to Austin's Burnet Road would today raise alarm bells for even me, but back then, it would have been merely amusing to all the workers in the gas station, pet shops, print shops, stationery stores, gift shops and heaven-knows-what-other kinds of businesses that I walked into and asked if they were hiring.

Even today I can recall their astonished reactions to my quest, which at the time only made me mad and more determined not to be rebuffed at my next stop. But the story was always the same. I'm quite sure I heard, "Are you kiddin' me kid?" more than once, and at least one guy said I should just come back when I was older. Boy, don't they wish.

Thinking back, I have no idea how I managed to eat or drink during that long day, but I do know that my only means of transportation was my feet, so it just took a whole lot longer to get home than I thought it would. Which means that it was well past dark when I got home to a fuming Mom, a bewildered Dad and no supper.

Actually, Lynda came and brought me supper in my room later. She probably felt guilty about having scolded me so harshly and was likely more than a little intrigued by my adventure. She quizzed me for what seemed like hours, then let me eat my dinner in my room by myself. Strangely I even remember the meal: cold fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

My reaction to the whole adventure has deeper roots than I have ever actually acknowledged before. I've long known that because of Bill's failure to hold a steady job and (thanks to Lynda) my awareness of our family's ever precarious finances I have always been obsessed with working, but I had forgotten just how long ago that obsession took hold.

Thanks to that obsession, I'm often still out of the house for twelve hours or more, but at least now my family knows where I am.

Monday, October 19, 2009

My Health Care Solution

One of the biggest problems with my current health care plan is me.

As the the debate about health care in this country has intensified, much of my attention has been focused on questions of availability and affordability. It's an intensely personal issue, of course, and not just for me, but as such, the question of responsibility requires more attention than I've been allowing.

This realization might have come sooner if I had been better patient over the years. But, because my interactions with my doctor were so infrequent, I never took my role seriously. Like most people, I thought the responsibility for health care was the doctor's; I am supposed to stay as healthy as I can, but when something goes wrong, it's up to the doctor to fix it.

Well, as I get older, I realize quite naturally that something is always going wrong, and if I wait for or rely on the doctor to fix it, I will be disappointed. And, that's exactly what has happened to me over the years. I've never been happy with my health care because I've never taken the proper responsibility for it.

This is more than just 'eating right, exercising and staying healthy'. This means that when I do go to the doctor, I have to go for a specific reason and I have to prepare for the the visit. In the past, I've never actually gotten ready for an appointment, in the sense of organizing my thoughts, planning my questions and getting ready for what I know will be an all-too-brief encounter with the doctor.

This is not just a disservice to the doctor, but it undermines my intent to remain healthy by not taking my part in the interaction seriously. If I don't approach it with a desire to help him, how can I reasonably expect him to provide me with anything but the most superficial kind of care?

So, I began the process of taking control of my health care by changing doctors. It didn't take a lot of effort, but it did take a new determination. I went in with a new attitude, and told him so at the outset. I told him that I was willing to work harder to stay healthy if I could be assured of having someone who would work with me, instead of just for me.

The result has been a much better outlook for my health. I don't have any serious problems other than my migraines at the moment, but in the long run, I know I'm going to need a professional on my side. I'll need someone who trusts me to bring him as much information as I can. I'll need to make the best use of our time together by coming in prepared to get right to the issue at hand, and ask the questions that I want answered.

I know I should have been doing this all along, but as it fades, the arrogance of youth no longer prevents me from admitting that if I want seriously good health care, it's up to me from here on out.

Friday, October 16, 2009

How Much?

How much will you want to live
When you're in declining health?

How much will you need to earn
To have a valid sense of worth?

How much will you have to give
To have your share of wealth?

How much will you really learn
From your little time on earth?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


My vision has been clouded
by angry vicious thoughts.
Even in my dreams
The madness never stops.
Even in the sun
Even in the rain
I pick relentless at the scab
I must enjoy the pain.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Too Much

I've learned too much
I've come to far
To lean upon another crutch
To wish upon another star.

I've cried too much,
I've grieved too long
To turn away another's touch
To leave unsung another song.

I've seen too much
I've peaked too soon
To fulfill youthful dreams, as such
To believe in the man in the moon.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yes You

Yes you, dear General.
With a simple movement of your breath
A million men marched to their death.

While you kept bundled in warm clothes
On muddy roads they stumbled, they froze.
While you slept warm in comfort bound
In black waters they struggled, they drowned.

So, though you've conquered bits of foreign soils,
Who sings of the Soldier now in that ground?
I say, to the Poet belong the spoils.


Yes you, dear Doctor.
Much power from our health derives
You play at God by 'saving' lives.

While you took drugs to them denied
In darkened rooms they begged for more, they cried.
While your plans for a future were laid
In pain and fear they knew the price, they paid.

So though you have profited from snake oils,
Who sings of the Patient now in that shade?
I say, to the Poet belong the spoils.


Yes you, dear Priest.
When you for God were allowed to speak
You preyed upon the sick and weak.

While you sermonized of flaming coals
In confessionals they lost their faith, their souls.
While you promised eternal life and saving grace
They saw that doubt, in your eyes, on your face.

So though you've claimed escape from serpent's coils
Who sings of the Life now in this place?
I say, to the Poet belong the spoils.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Did You Know Her?

Life's dark secrets are almost never found.

Her eyes are eaten;
her entrails are unwound.

Her body's in a shallow grave
Placed there without a sound.

With simple savage artistry
her passion is unbound.

So much more than Life is lost
when blood is on the ground.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Last Visit

I got my first call yesterday. The Volunteer Coordinator called to tell me that Mr. B. was dead. "He passed away", was what she actually said. I think I shall have to come to use that term with more ease if I am to continue down this path.

On my second visit, I arrived at ten to find Mr. B. sleeping. Honestly the feeling was one of relief. Although I feel confident about my ability to interact with Hospice patients, I must admit that I get a bit nervous going in, especially for the first time. Though I'd been to see him before, the first 'visit' had been so brief that it didn't really count.

He had a 'sitter' with him, a large fellow named Darryl with mutton-chop sideburns who was reading Dan Brown's latest novel. Since he was being paid to sit with Mr. B. it seemed a little awkward offering to give him a break. This wasn't exactly the 'respite' I was hoping to give beleaguered family memebers, but it was what I had come to do. He was more than happy to take a break, and I took the seat by Mr. B's bed.

The TV was on, but I muted it as soon as the sitter left. Alone in the room with him for the first time, I had my first real chance to look at him. I turned my chair toward him and focused on him for a few minutes. He was wearing a striped polo shirt. He was nearly bald, and very thin. His mouth was gaping and his skin was tight across the cheekbones.

I looked around the room, which, although it was as new and clean as a hotel room, still retained some of the institutional character associated with its actual use. Mr. B had only been there for a week or so, so the space around him was essentially stark and bare of personality. A paper bag, likely used to carry his last set of real clothes, was set in the corner. Photos of nephews and nieces were stuck to the wall with postcards along with a dozen or so 'hang in there' cards.

One of the reasons I am called to do this work is because I am interested in knowing who people 'used to be'. It's interesting, I think, how quickly people with a lifetime's worth of valuable knowledge and experiences are set aside with no thought given to who they used to be.

It almost goes without saying, but that seems to be the problem. No one wants to talk about it in that way.

No matter what the role, public or private; no matter what the job, powerful or humble; no matter how long ago it had been since they were that person, everybody used to be somebody. 'I used to be somebody' is tough thing for the aged to acknowledge, since it implies that who they are now--broken tattered physical creatures--is not who they really are. And, in truth, the final shell, the diminished social creature living at the edge of life, is not who they really are.

They really used to be someone else. Someone younger, of course, but more importantly, everyone used to be someone whose life, identity, existed in a context. That means that they used to be 'somewhere'; in a family, in a job, a place. Whether or not they admit that they are no longer part of that family, no longer that person, or in that place, most people will admit that there is much to be remembered, much to be shared.

There was no one there to share that context for Mr. B. with me, so I went on what I could see and feel. I think Mr. B. was a choral conductor, possibly a musician, but clues to his identity in that room were scarce. There were no pictures of him that I could see. I was told by his nephew, whom I met on the first visit, that Mr. B. had never married and came to Austin because he has nieces and nephews here. Most of the photos were of young people whom I assumed to be his grand-nieces and nephews.

Shortly after I arrived, I met one of his nieces. She was a woman of about my age, with gray hair and a worried smile. She was hesitant to come into the room, so I went out in the hall to greet her. She asked me what my role was, and I did my best to explain. I have not yet earned my identity, so to speak, so what came out was a bit clumsy. I'll get better at these introductions, I hope.

After we talked for a few minutes, I returned to Mr. B's bedside, and the niece spoke to the nurse for a few minutes. She left without seeing her uncle. I think she was relieved not to have to talk with him. I know I was secretly glad to be serving in silence at that moment.

My third--and last--visit was blissfully short. Unlike the second time I came, this day he was marginally awake. He greeted me with glazed half-opened eyes, through which I could still see a faint spark. It was fleeting, but I swear that he attempted a smile.

He didn't remember me nor did I expect him to. I told him it wasn't important but he tried for about a minute anyway. Then he closed his eyes to sleep, which he did every few minutes. He was a bit restless, though and every so often he'd 'wake up' or become a little more present. He never actually turned his head toward me or opened his eyes.

His sitter that day was a small hispanic woman named Maria. She told me that she worked for a home health care provider and showed me her badge. She might have been a student, since she was reading a textbook, History of the World. Though we didn't really talk, I didn't see any notes or even a highlighter. Even I can't imagine reading that book for entertainment. The TV was on (as it always is) and I muted it (as I always do) as soon as I was alone with Mr. B. This time my role didn't seem so awkward to me and Maria seemed grateful for the break I offered her.

Mr. B. was never really conscious while I was there, but he was present. He often picked at his bedclothes and several times tried to dig at the infection raging in his lower back. Each time I moved his hand up gently to his chest he didn't resist. I pulled up the covers a bit at the same time. Although he was obviously heavily medicated, he didn't seem to have his pain completely masked. Yet, he never once grimaced or cried out in any manner.

After a minute or so, I asked him if he'd like me to read. To my delight, I heard him say yes, that would be 'nice diversion'. His sudden presence surprised me. I was pleased to be able to interact with him, so I pulled a book out of my bag and began to read. As I read, he said started saying unintelligible things to himself softly, as if in resonance to my voice. To keep my voice soft, I kept it low. The sound seemed to please him. He continued to talk as well.

I'd been told he loved music, so perhaps he was 'singing' along. He had a large chest, like I imagine an opera singer might have had. It was uncovered that morning because he'd told Maria to leave his shirt off after she'd given him a shave. She said there was family wedding that week and he was epecting a lot of relatives and wanted to get cleaned up for them.

I only stayed twenty mintues. I touched his hand a couple of times and looked at him as closely as I could as often as I could. It's hard be present for this and not just read or watch TV. It's really more boring than grim. His death mask was forming but it wasn't ugly or painful at all. Just slow. With each breath the end obviously came closer, but only one breath at a time. I sat and shared a few of those breaths with him. Then it was time for me to go on to work.

I was going to see him again tomorrow, but now I can go on a walk with the dog. We'll say a little something for Mr. B. while we're out there.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My First Visit

I went to visit my first hospice patient today.

It was a beautiful day. After several days of rain that broke a months long drought and heat wave, the sun was out, the sky dotted with small clouds, the air was clear, clean and cool as I drove to the nursing home.

Mr. B. lives in a very upscale nursing home in the hills west of Austin. He is in his early eighties and has been diagnosed with a 'failure to thrive', which essentially means that he has no hope of recovery from his illness. I found out today that this is an infection deep in his back that has resisted all attempts to fight it off and has now taken over. He is bed-bound.

I learned this from his nephew, J., whom I recognized from another life, so to speak. Years ago--thirty to be exact--I worked at a private club downtown whose members were among Austin's elite,powerful and wealthy. J. was a young real estate developer back in the day, and we instantly recognized each other. It was one of those synchronistic moments; just meant to be.

J. agreed to intorduce me to Mr. B., so he and I and his attendant R. all went in and gathered round Mr. B's bed. J. told him I was a friend from thirty years ago, whihc seemed to have some resonance.

Mr. B. was clearly pleased to see someone new. He was also pleased to see someone older (or who at least appeared older--after all, J. is likely ten years my senior) because he looked right at me and said "You've got some years on you!" He stroked his chin with a smile.

"Indeed" I said, realizing that my white beard was valuable 'coin' in this realm, where so many caregivers seem like they are right out of high school.

I have to say that the staff I met today were young, of course, but the most professional and caring individuals I've encountered in this environment. Of course my experiences with Lynda were limited by finances. While I thought we did pretty good with what we had, it's clear that I could have done better for Lynda.

With three of us in the room it felt a little crowded, so I did not stay. I told Mr. B. that I'd come by just to introduce myself and schedule another time to come see him. He seemed quite pleased to hear that I would come back tomorrow at ten. He said he would be 'honored', but I am quite sure it's the other way round.

So I will go again tomorrow to find out more about him and see what, if anything, I can do for him. The nurse told me that he likes classical music, particularly opera, so the stacks of CD's that Lynda left me may be destined for him.

I have no real plan nor expectation other than being present tomorrow. We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tree Tag

On my walk to work this morning, I found a small round aluminum tag on the ground next to the sidewalk. On it is stamped the number 187. Near the top is a tiny hole, through which a bent nail protrudes.

I have a habit of scanning for small bits of metal on the ground wherever I walk.

It's a habit left from childhood, when finding a penny actually meant something like two pieces of candy at the drugstore. I still pick up pennies. Coins of all size or nationality, actually, but no penny is not worth my time.

Nor are other bits of metal too useless to induce me to stoop for them, even enduring dirty fingers till I can clean my prize. I rarely pass up a whole assortment of detritus. Size matters though, since I don't fancy lugging around anything that is too big to fit in my shirt pocket.

Still I have quite a collection of bits of wire, sheet metal, washers, slugs, nuts, bolts, litlle once-molten drops of solder (a favorite), welding rod scraps, keys, rings and earrings.

In D.C. during the inauguration I collected at least a dozen earrings with the help of David and Valery, who are quite sharp-eyed. They had no interest in the other items on my list of acceptables, but suffice it to say that earrings were only a part of the trip's collection.

The 187 tag, while it may not have a significant cash value, turns out to be something of a special memento. It's unique.

It's a tree tag. So far as I know, the City of Austin has tagged every single tree of significant size in central Austin. It's easy to spot them. They are usually nailed in at about eye level and are stamped with a three digit number. I'm guessing that there is a database-imaybe just a simple spreadsheet--that coordinates these numbers with other information about the tree, like type, age, gps coordinates, etc.

So, when I picked up the tag and realized what it was, I began looking for the tree it had surely fallen from. I thought of vandals, wondering about the why of it all. I turned to the nearest tree, a foot away, to put it back. As to how I might do this I gave no thought; I don't carry a hammer in my bag.

But there was already a tag on the tree. Number 186.

Oh I thought, it's one down the other way. There were no other trees. I looked down and saw the fresh stump for the first time. My heart sank. Now how did I miss that?

I hope that all boys and girls who ever climbed a tree and really loved it will say a small mantra or prayer at the sight of a stump--especially a fresh one--for what we have been given by that tree. Even--perhaps especially--when it is not 'our' tree; one we've never had the honor to climb.

I collected the tag with an awkward bow to the absent tree and said silently, 'you'll be missed'.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On the Appetite of the Aged

Of the many things we must abandon as we get older, one of the very last to go is appetite.

Even people who are terminally ill somehow manage to get hungry. And yet--despite adverse circumstances that are unrelated to their health--they still manage to eat.

What circumstances could be more adverse than a fatal illness, you ask?

Bad food.

While refusal to eat could be interpreted as a sign that a person is close to death, it might be more easily seen a sign that the food is so damn bad that even a dying man can't eat it.

That's pretty bad.

And yet, it seems to be the norm for most institutions. The excuse is often made that the ill and the elderly don't want food with too much flavor. That's just a cover-up for lazy thinking, and quite possibly, a lazy cook.

The lazy thinking comes from the notion that old people want bland food. No one ever asks the them if this is actually the case. It's taken as a given; using the lowest common denominator to define the entire class of 'diners' in a hospital or nursing home.

Now this doesn't--or shouldn't--come as a surprise. We already follow this formula in schools, to the detriment of the students' health and the school's budget. Kids don't eat the food. It goes in the wastebasket. The school lunch program ends up looking more like a make-work program for #10 can cooks than a health or income benefit for the students they are supposed to feed.

The question of appetite hasn't changed, however, from grade school to the nursing home.

Well, slightly. It is true, of course, that older people simply don't have the appetite that they once had. It is true that because they have so much less physical activity, the need to eat is greatly reduced. After all, recess no longer involves a long chase around the playground. Now it's a trip down the hall to physical therapy.

But just because the 'kids' are no longer 'starving' doesn't mean they aren't hungry.

And yet, when nursing home residents get to the table, they get wet warm salad, canned peaches with watered-down cottage cheese, stewed prunes, salisbury steak, rubbery skinless boneless chicken, fish sticks and chicken fingers. No salt, no pepper, paprika, no peppers of any kind. No salsa. No sabor.

We can do better. We don't have to be so damned lazy.

Now, I'm not saying that we need gourmet cuisine in nursing homes and hospitals. I certainly have no illusions about the poor eating habits and habitual preferences of most Americans. I do think, however, that we are underestimating most old and infirm people's desire for flavorful food. I also think we are underestimating their willingness to try new and interesting things, even at an advanced age.

Since 'quality of life' is such an admittedly important aspect of the whole aging and dying process, I think that improving the 'quality of food' might just be worth the effort. It might not save lives, but it would make what's left of them more enjoyable.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Circle Expands

We have, in our household, created a tradition of sorts. When we gather round the dinner table, no matter the number, before we begin eating, we form a circle. We always join hands for a moment and say 'thank you' for the blessings we feel have been bestowed upon us that day. It has become a standard line, one with which all diners at the Dubov's are familiar:

"Thank you, Lord, for bringing us all together, for one more day."

With hands still joined in a circle, each person says what they are thankful for, that day, that minute or just in general. We laugh. We roll our eyes. It's all good.

We began this little tradition when our children were very small. The thought is that while we are all inclined to say what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving, when such considerations are expected, it would be useful to remember what makes us grateful on each and every day.

In the early days, Lynda would often join us. Given her age, I was mindful of the day when we wouldn't be "all together". In a way, it was a hedge against the certain future. Then, when Lynda died it seemed ironic, after all this time. And when Pierre died it seemed tragic.

But we kept forming that circle, night after night, no matter how many--or few--hands actually joined together for that one more day. Some days, it seemed like we said it out of habit; other days it was especially meaningful.

Given the events of the past couple of years, it often felt more like the former than the latter.

Then, when Nora was born, the circle expanded. Although she did not yet partake of Valery's fabulous cuisine, Nora came--with her parents in tow, of course--to Dine with the Dubovs.

Now, while I might have expected this--for Nora's birth came as no surprise--and I've had some time to consider how it might change our lives, the perfection of the circle came as revelation to me.

What circle is not perfect?

Unlike all other symbolic forms, the circle can contract or expand while losing nothing and gaining all. I see that death diminishes the circle not, for the absent, whether they be passed on, or merely in D.C., Michigan, California or across town, are always with us.

Those not or no longer in the circle are always there, in the hands held, the eyes met, the smiles mirrored. Birth, though it may not improve upon the perfection of the circle, expands it to encompass more hearts. The pulse of the family grows stronger.

The circle binds us by defining us. To be bound to anything is an curse to some; for me, the circle of hands around the table is life. Why shouldn't it be so?

I am bound so many things it seems pointless to rail against them all, or even one. I am bound by gravity to this sphere, by love to this woman, by honor to this family. Best of all to me is the fact that while so little of my life is actually of my making, I am undeniably made real and my life is given its value, by the bindings that are these relations.

Without that circle I would not wish to exist. That's easy enough to say, and may sound odd to others, as if spoken by the goldfish to the hungry housecat. Of course I like my little sphere. And my little rose. Is it merely because I know no different?

I know not.

What I know is this: When her soft cry mingled with the sound of clinking glasses, laughter and good conversation, Nora joined our circle. After but a few short weeks in this world, she's found her way to one of it's sweet spots.

Tout le monde! A table!

Friday, September 11, 2009


In re-reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink recently, I was caught up by his account of the emperical evidence of what I call 'micro-markers'. These are tiny, almost imperceptible changes in physical behavior that confirm the old saw, 'Fake it till you make it.'

The evidence is that simply holding one's face muscles differently, ie smiling or frowning, can influence one's thoughts and emotions either positively or negatively

This made me think that facial muscles are only one of many ways that physical conditions will affect thoughts and emotions.  Obviously, posture has long been known as a 'marker' of this observation, but what about the hundreds is not thousands of 'mirco-markers' that our other muscle groups make on our minds?

It could be very interesting to develop a method for identifying key 'micro-markers' that are relatively easy to change in order to modify behavior.

Athletes, for example, could benefit from observing not just their form while in action, but also while supposedly inactive.  The golfer's stance while waiting for the tee; the baseball player while waiting on deck; the tennis player between points.

Other behaviors, rightly considered to be unwelcome ticks, or even unhealthy habits, could also be modified with careful observation and posture therapy. 

Of course, it would require intense and rigorous research that could take years, but the accumulation of data would distinguish it from more popular and less serious diet and 'holistic' based therapies.

Ok, so it won't cure schizophrenia, but it might cure that slice.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A New Adventure

Yesterday I began what I think will be an interesting experience, possibly even an adventure of sorts. I volunteered for Hospice Austin.

Actually, I began this process earlier this year by meeting with the volunteer coordinator for Hospice Austin. Our interview went well and I was accepted. Alas, I had just missed one of the training session that all volunteers are required to go through, so I had to wait till yesterday to finally get started.

About thirty of us gathered in a small windowless room on the second floor of the Hospice offices in northwest Austin. We were a diverse group. One of the first things we did was to go around the room, introduce ourselves and say why we were there.

Most of the people were women, though there was a good number of men. Most people were older, but there were a few young people as well. Most of people had recently lost someone they loved, and since Hospice had been there for them, they were there to give something back. One young woman admitted that she was not there to pay anything back, but to pay it forward. A young doctor had come to find a way to change the way she dealt with death. A middle aged chef with four children came to help others after his mother died. A middle aged woman who had recently lost her forty-four year old husband came to help others accept what they could not fight.

When it was my turn, I wish I'd been more articulate, but the essence of what I said was this:

'Like others, I came because I want to give back, certainly. I lost my mother about two years ago and honestly, Hospice did very little for her. But it is what they did for me that I remember. That's what I want to pass on. I am also a bit selfish. I am a writer and I want to write about it.'

Naturally, when I got back home and was talking with my family, I thought of other, equally important reasons for doing this. Someone said that it would be too hard for them; they'd been too sad all the time. I can see how that would be a natural reaction for some, perhaps even many. Death and dying is still a very difficult 'place' for people to 'go', so to speak precisely because it is associated with so much sadness and guilt.

What I learned from Lynda's death, however, is that it was the illness, not the death that made me feel so sad and guilty. It was the loss of dignity and the quality of life that I came to regret, not the passing of my Mother. In fact, her passing was the moment of release, the lifting of the burden that illness and pain had placed upon us all at her end. Death itself was a great relief.

That this sentiment is shared by so many after the passing of a loved one is testament to it's validity. We want to feel bad, or even worse than we felt while they were dying, but we can't. The obviousness of the change is too great, and the freedom is too keenly felt to deny. Many will, however, but only to their detriment. Far better is to admit that we've been longing for this moment, craving the release for our loved ones as much as for ourselves.

So, that here the message that I hope to bring to others--especially the caregivers--as part of this process: 'I have come from the 'other side' to tell you that you will survive, you will get stronger. Although you are powerless to change the circumstances of their death, you will not regret the passing of your loved one. Death is freedom.'

Training will last two weeks, after which I will get my first assignment. At this point I have no idea how it will actually work out. I was concerned about having enough time to serve meaningfully, but I was assured that a few hours a week will be sufficient. Volunteers, after all, are not really on the front lines, but they are a vital part of the Hospice effort.

So begins the adventure.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Both readers of this journal know that as part of my effort to practice this craft, I have here posted now six chapters of a long-overdue novel I've taken to calling 'Fire & Ice'.

It's long overdue because I actually wrote it nearly twenty years ago. To be fair, I didn't actually write the novel, but while working a perfectly boring job as a receptionist while starting my 'career' at the University, I had enough free time between answering the phones and opening the mail to bang out an outline for twenty four chapters. I called it a 'step-sheet' for lack of a better term. To me it was not a simple outline, but a step-by-step telling of the plot. All that was missing, I felt, was a bit of narration, some description, some dialog and voila! Novel!

Right? Right.

Well, twenty years later, with the burst of hypergraphia brought on by Pierre's death, after about a year of nightly scratching in my journal and practicing short prose and silly rhymes on Facebook, I felt it was about time to really roll up my sleeves and see if I couldn't just make it happen. After all, it was--is--all worked out. Just have to fill in the gaps.

Right? Right.

To do this I set up a project. I made a plan. I decided to write a chapter a week for six months. If my math is right, that would be all twenty four chapters. I'd have a fully written novel. Well, fully written except for editing. But one step at a time. Write first, then edit. If I start thinking about the whole thing, I won't get anything done.

Right? Write!

To be honest, I haven't actually kept to the schedule, since I think it's been about twelve weeks since I started and I only have six chapters written, but I think that it's better than no writing at all for twenty years.

All that writing, even if it was only a small piece of the imagined whole, began to add up. Soon I had more than twelve thousand words. Both readers know this, yes? Yes.

That's actually a significant number, as it turn out, for last week I encountered something that has changed the way I look at writing and perhaps the way I actually get published.

Readers may know that the process to get a book published is a closed one. Publishers do not look at what they call 'unsolicited' manuscripts. In order for a manuscript to make it into print, it has to be brought to the editor's desk by an agent. Publishing houses make use of many agents, relying on the pile of manuscripts they bring in to provide the list of titles that will make money for them in the coming months and years. They call it the 'slush pile'.

Harper Collins, which is a UK-based publishing house, has decided to make use of the internet and the whole social networking 'phenomenon' to provide a way for authors--new and old, published or unpublished--to, as they say, "Beat the slush pile." It's a web site, called Authonomy.

The way it works is pretty simple. In order to register for the site--and make your book available for reading and comments--you have to have written at least ten thousand words. While this sounds like a lot, it's just about a third or even a quarter of a 'regular' book, so it means that while you don't necessarily need to have a finished work, you must have enough written to qualify you as a 'legitimate' writer.

By that I mean that one simply has enough accumulated words to
a) consider oneself a 'writer' and
b) have enough written enough to appreciate the effort required to call oneself the same.

Writers are also readers on the site, and books are ranked according to their popularity, or the number of people who have 'backed' the book. It's sort of like the star rating system used for music or food, except that the ratings are also tied to what they call 'talent spotters' or people who have the knack for picking the best authors early.

Then, at the end of each calendar month, the top five books are submitted to the actual publisher's desk at Harper Collins (UK) for consideration alongside all the others in their current 'slush pile'.

Of course, it's not a promise to publish, any more than having an agent get your work in the pile is a promise to publish. It is one more path up the mountain, so to speak. It is a very big mountain, on that we are all agreed.

On the downside, it can be argued successfully that this sort of handicapping system--that is meant to vaguely resemble the algorithms that Google uses to determine page rank and relevance--results in comments and recommendations that trend toward the positive.

In other words, the whole effort can be perceived as little more than a beauty contest.

In large part, on this site, how one's book ranks depends on how much 'networking' one does with the other authors. And since there is very little serious criticism from 'fellow' writers, many works get a lot of attention even though they are not really quality writing, or even publishable.

My own work, Fire & Ice, falls into this category. Because the subject has already been covered in the current best seller list, there is no real likelihood that it will actually get published. But that hasn't stopped it from becoming fairly popular on Authonomy.

When I put it up on the site, Fire & Ice ranked at the very bottom, of course, somewhere around 3,500. But within a week, it had already rising 2000 spots, and in two weeks, it's gone to number 467.

For the two weeks that it has been on the site, Fire & Ice has gone to number 15 on the weekly list, and if you sort by thriller, currently it is number five. Yesterday it made it all the way to number one in it's genre! It's back down to five today because as more books enter the system and their ratings rise, other ratings (mine) will fall.

Right now, though, on Authonomy, Fire & Ice is rising, and fast!

Keep in mind, though, that was just for the week. In in order to make it to the 'Editor's Desk' as they call it, my book must be one of the top five for the month.

With that caveat in mind, I have been enjoying the 'success'. Here are a couple of the things that people have said, for example:

One of the most polished pieces of writing i have seen on here for a long while. I was sucked into the story without being aware of an author! Only the characters. I love your description.

Just loved what I read of Fire and Ice. Superb prologue and smooth prose. Unlike some books on here, I was straight into yours without even thinking. The contrast between the prologue and ch 1 is marked and engrossing; the tense, acrimonious exchanges between Glen and Hyde make great reading. Your descriptions of Hyde eating were totally gross!
I love mystery tales like this, and Fire and Ice feels like it will be up there with the best.

So you can see that there is a trend toward cream-puff reviews. I have nonetheless gotten some very valuable advice and specific points to edit. the result has been a re-write of the first six chapters that has not only improved the work itself, but the quality of my writing as a whole.

So, even though this is mostly just an exercise at the moment, I am profiting by it. My second novel, tentatively called "Eighty-Sixed" is already on the drawing board.

In case you missed it above, here is the link:Fire & Ice

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Of Hot Sauce and Peppercicles

This was the weekend for food contests. Valery entered not one but two contests this week, and both came to a climax on Sunday.

One of these events was the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival. Readers will recall that Valery's already won this event, as well as having placed second a couple of times. This means that her hot sauce is good, Damn good, if you ask me.

The reason it is so good is because it's made fresh. So many people either cook or puree their sauces to the point where little is recognizable other than the red color. Technically, I guess that Valery's sauce is a 'pico' rather than an actual salsa, but what makes it so good, what sets it apart from all the others, is the freshness.

Valery shops for the ingredients at the Farmer's market the day before, then gets up and makes the salsa from scratch on the morning of the competition. There is no cooking involved, but a lot of chopping, dicing, mincing, grating, and, of course, tasting. The texture's important, but we all know that it's all in the taste. Valery's got that wired.

Alas, she didn't win this year.

She says, 'been there, done that' but I know it's a disappointment. The only consolation is the fact that it always feels good to compete, to do something, even if you don't win, or even place. It's a tired cliche, but the reward's in the doing, not in the winning. Ok, so that's not going to satisfy Valery's competitive nature, but it will keep her going, trying it again.

She's not been satisfied with trying the same thing, however. This past week, she also entered Central Market's Hatch Chile recipe contest, with not just one, but two very inventive and interesting ideas.

The first was Hatched Chile Soup. The idea here was very simple and the presentation very clever.

The soup consisted of roasted hatch chiles, vegetable stock, egg yolks and a bit of cream. After a brief bit of heat to cook the eggs and warm the stock, the ingredients are blended until creamy.

Then came the clever bit. The presentation was in a 'hatched' egg shell. She poured a bit of the soup into the cleaned out eggshell, then topped it with a generous dollop of creme fraiche. The finishing touch was the hatch chile stem garnish, emerging from the hatched egg soup.

Clever and delicious! I tasted it and can testify. I thought she had a lock with this one

But Valery wasn't done yet. Now that she was going full steam, so to speak, she came up with another great idea at literally the last minute.

In a span of about twenty minutes before the deadline, she came up with her second recipe, Watermelon Hatch Chili Peppercicles. Again, it had both the flavor and the cleverness a recipe needs to be considered. But she didn't have time to test it out, so she just typed up the recipe and entered it in the contest.

Oh, and there was one catch. She couldn't enter twice. Only one entry per household.

Now, Henry was staying with us that day and had already helped Valery write up the recipe for her Hatched Chili Soup, so he suggested that Valery enter the Peppercicle recipe under his name.

You see where this is going. Henry got the call back from the coordinator, who told him that out of the several thousand recipes submitted to Central Market, they picked seven. The Watermelon Peppercicles was one of them.

Needless to say, this was both a delight for Valery and a bit of chagrin as well. After all, not only were the Peppercicles a last-minute thought, they weren't even tested.

The next step was to actually make the Peppercicles for the judges.

Since Henry lives in Nacodoches, he couldn't come to the judging, but he called the coordinator for the event and they agreed to let him send Valery as his proxy.

Meanwhile, Valery was quickly assembling the ingredients and testing it out. She only had a day to prepare, and this at the same time she was preparing for the Hot Sauce Festival.

Sunday morning, after she finished her hot sauce entry and delivered it to Waterloo Park, she came back home to knock out the Peppercicles. In just a couple of hours, they were in the freezer, waiting for the trip to the judges.

I went to get some dry ice and a little cooler to transport them in, and this proved to be fortuitous because when they came out of the freezer, the Peppercicles weren't completely frozen. Packed next to the dry ice, however, by the time she arrived at the store, they were frozen solid.

Judging took place at Central Market South, right in next to the potatoes and onions.

Valery and the other seven participants brought their dishes up to the judges one at a time. Valery went second, finishing each Peppercicle with a bit of shaved pink Hawaiian sea salt to bring out the sweet and hot flavor of the frozen treat.

The judges seemed to like them, and finished them all off in just a few bites. Then, the wait began while they tallied up the results.

Sadly, Valery's wonderful little treat was beat out by a pizza!

Can you believe it? I am not sure what the criteria were exactly, but I can't imagine that a pizza is any more flavorful than then Peppercicle and not even nearly as clever. In fact, I'd say it was a downright disappointment that the judges went with such a mundane selection. Bleh!

What's encouraging here is the fact that Valery is not just competing, but she's doing well at it. While I am not surprised, because I know how creative and talented she is in the realm of food, I am delighted because I think this will lead to bigger and better things.

Look out Pillsbury Bake Off! Valery is in the house!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Many complex answers
have no simple explanations

Many earnest speeches
are not honest conversations

Many hopeful starts
are mired in useless hesitations

Many noble goals
are born of unreal expectations

Many healthy choices
become poisoned formulations

Every winding path
will reach a single destination

Friday, August 21, 2009


The other night I started thinking about what my goals as a writer are.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that I have a lot of fairly concrete ideas, just waiting for the luxury of the time to write. So, I made a list.

Of course, none of these projects will likely earn me much--if any--money, but it is nice to think about where I would like to be as a writer in about five to ten years. The list is ambitious, to be sure, but then, I'm no Asimov, either.

In no particular order, here's the list I jotted down:


The Amber Room
+2 more

Short story collections/memoirs

86'd: Restaurant memoir

Biography: Lynda


Stage play - Mama's Boy

Screenplay - The Food Heist

TV episode - Law & Order: The Middle Man

Poem volumes
+10 more

Epic poem: The Poet O

How-to: Waiting Tables

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Salt on a Slug

The minds of men
were made to shrink with power.

Reason takes its leave from them
with every precious hour.

Their knowledge is ensconced
within a darkened tower.

They ignore the cost
So lives are lost
And mother's milk grows sour.

Their wars are fought
Our peace is not
To be if we before them cower.

But hope is free
Despite misery
Time will all our pain devour.

For, from Dust to Dust
It's Love and Trust
That do our dreams empower.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The 'Quiet Deluxe' in the Digital Age

So, I have been playing with my new toy, the Royal 'Quiet Deluxe'. Although it is hardly quiet when compared, say, with the sound of this digital keyboard, it is certainly most 'Deluxe'.

It has the feel of an old world machine, the kind that the current 'Steampunk' DIY fashionistas like to falsely re-create. Unlike the Steampunker stuff, though, everything on this baby actually works and is there for a reason. All the gears and levers and knobs have a purpose, which I actually remembered when I sat down in front of it for the first time, a sort of muscle memory that like the proverbial riding a bike, is never forgotten.

Also set aside in my memory but not forgotten was the sensation of typing on a manual typewriter. Like a dance, it takes a certain rhythm, cadence, speed. Too fast and the key jam. Too slow and it becomes laborious. But when the thoughts are flowing and the keys are struck in a steady beat, the page leaps to life. Before you know it, I have a completed page rolling up and out of the machine.

Ah, but what to do with that page?

One of the things that I love the digital age is the fact that once words are captured in the computer, I can reuse them in any way I like. To me, words on paper seem trapped; bound in three dimensions so tightly that it requires another effort just to release them. I really don't like transcribing or even re-typing my work. It seems like such a waste of time that I could spend writing new things.

So, my first thought on getting the Quiet Deluxe--other than delight, which is only exceeded (in the form of a gift received) by the BB gun I got when I was seven--was how to overcome the gap between the words I longed to hammer out on the page and the words I longed to shape and reuse. In other words, how to free them from the ink on the page.

A good friend, who is very technically savvy--ok geeky--suggested that I try Optical Character Recognition software. This involves a couple of steps. First, the typed page is scanned, then saved as a file. The OCR software then 'reads' the machine print (type) and 'renders' it as text which you can then save as a file. After that, I can open up the file and post it to my blog or incorporate it in my novel, for example.

This simple process has a simple flaw. The 'rendered' text is not always, shall we say, accurate.

Below is a picture of the scanned page:

And here is how that got 'rendered':

One of the things that has most big ski h|alth@ay| issue.
on by find on late bad Now, it should be said at t hi I tact that 1. Like the pill text and the |@|b*ys or |oxgy|ss who all gotxg to divide the detail tot is, good health ixeuyan||. . Too trouble tea I pay too buck axd git to! too little ix yet a.
Cool did total I ply appyox|it|ly 41000 pay posts Ax tot K@alth insurance, yet skis I want to go to the doctor, I *|ytqtnly haven't high getting anywhere nay that 1*| l ot sappier. And whether the doctors lie it or hot, tour all actually in the nervier lnduetyy. After all, very tow ot this actually bake anything. Just like a wattle, the doctor in their to serve people. The Girf|y|xee is, in the ||stau|aht bisutwgss, we call this people, while th|do|t| a call that's spate the But ski I at poetry I vent to bags in bait toy two hours in ski waiting poor, they another hour in tag exec book all lust to tell in that hi nearly eouldn|t--y|ad, wouldest-- do anything tot in. Of: hi would py|slrtb| belle, but only a Tim and only it I abide by all the bulbs, like not as Inc tot boys.
Speaking ot India Inc, Ajax I want to pick up by py||eyiptiox tot by xtgyaix|s, the young pha|-|eist told of that it had not bill filled, and eokl|n't be till to||oryo| b**a4s* the too- uyax|| bopping wouldn't pay tot py|slytptions rill d Lisa than thirty days apart. Crazy shit.

Only the last line got 'rendered' correctly, literally as well as figuratively.

The Royal "Quiet Deluxe"

Well, the weeks of birthdays are past and I think we all got what we wanted.

First came Valery's birthday, the big Five-O. Next we saw a real birthday, that of the newest member of our family, Nora Mairead Caselli, who arrived on August 5. Then it was Stephen's turn, celebrating with Heather in San Francisco, now a free man for the first time in twenty-two years.

By contrast my birthday this past Wednesday was a very low-profile event, for which I am most grateful. Actually, the thing for which I am most grateful, truly, is the present I received from Valery and Maddie: a typewriter.

No ordinary typewriter, this. It is a Royal, a "Quiet Deluxe" model that was designed in the thirties by a famous industrial designer and manufactured right through to the sixties. This particular model was purchased in 1957. I know because the sales receipt was in the travel case, along with the original instruction manual and warranty card. It's in absolutely perfect condition.

I did some research on it and it turns out that this particular typewriter was Hemingway's favorite; it was the machine that was on his desk the day he committed suicide. It was also the preferred 'typer' of many famous authors and not coincidentally, the model that I actually learned to write on, way back in high school.

I was the co-editor of my high school newspaper, The Maroon, and spent many an hour in the publications office, banging out stories on one of the old typewriters that we had inherited from the school administration for our use. We had Underwoods and Royals and maybe even an Olivetti, but they were all manual, with sticky keys and no automatic eraser to save us from deadly typos.

I say I learned to write on those typewriters, but I learned to type on another machine, also in high school. I was only one of two guys who actually took typing as a class at Austin High in 1974, not because I wanted to be a writer, but because Lynda told me that if I wanted to be sure of getting a job someday, I had to know how to type.

Although I did indeed learn to type, I have never learned to touch type. Even now I am looking at my fingers and not the screen as I write. Of course, in typing class, looking at one's fingers was not permitted, so I really had to sneak in my looks to keep up with the rest of the class. It turns out that I actually got pretty good at it, running times of 50 or even 60 words per minute, but in a way, that wasn't very accurate because the sentence that we typed for the speed test was always the same, and with the requisite practice, I could bang it out fast without appearing to look at my fingers.

So, this was the first sentence I typed on my new machine:

"The one right way to do the job is to do it as ti ought to be done at the time it ought to be done."

That took about 2 seconds.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The FaceBook Chronicles

These bits of poems come from my FaceBook 'status' lines from the past couple of months.

sun on fire
a crackling pyre
a blazing liar
that won't expire
nor my work inspire
before I die or
escape the desire

can be troubled and ever toils
but to the poet go the spoils

Make mine fat: sugar salt and butter
I like all that.
Make ours cheap: plastic junk and clutter
We like it heaped.
Make theirs dead: spastic drunks in gutter
They need no bed.

I'm intox tox toxicated
by the way way way you play it
don't stop stop stop to say it
just walk walk walk away it's
still the day day day to pay it

Sees a shade on the land, both feet moving slow
Heart bludgeoned by bland, no fire down below
Now pushed round at random by ebb and flow
The trudge of a man with nowhere to go

To a blow job ordered by Ray
His flatulent bride did obey
Alas, he was cursed
She said, "You go first."
And then she just blew him away.

likes the sound of rain
and the heat restrained
though now in the main
it goes down the drain

Beg though we may for a right to health care,
some say the cost is just too great to bear.
While we cling to life; they false witness bear.
With pitchfork and torch we rage and despair
But "all that is solid melts into air".

Wants to look for clues that survive
But waits for the news to arrive
I am what I chose to deny
With nothing to lose but more lies
Can you see the blues in my eyes?

lost wax
post fact
most lax
tossed back

Looking round
For a clock unwound
On that broken down
Side of town.
Do you know of that place?
Do you see it on my face?
Not today.
Look away.
It will vanish without a trace.

sun sun blazing like a gun gun

turning the wheel of history
but it's always been a mystery
just how and why I'm here. You see,
everything seems amiss to me
broken links and missing keys
are just more things I must release
on the path to inner peace

was a wrasslin' with the devil
came in my sleep a revelation you ain't on the level
so put the pedal to the metal
before the dust is settled

gettin' the blues
lookin' for clues
tryin' to choose
the one I'll lose

time just won't stand still
in spite of what you will
you cannot get your fill
of this, the daily kill

Coffee breath smells like death
So take this hint; eat a mint.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Heat Like a Rope

I am in morning
Heat like a rope
With a tight knot at my neck
Hard rays angle in, unseen
Past saving shade.

I sweat through the night
But my exposed dreams desiccate
In the wild wind of dawn.

You are here
Touch me lightly
With a kiss like a spring.
You are now
Life's cool clear passion rush.

I am when
Drunk on you
Not to need or care
Of thieving heat
Or relentless light.

Remind me love
That there is no cruel sun
When I am
In your ever evening embrace.

Friday, August 7, 2009


All the madness conflict spite and greed
Spread by tyrants, despots, miters, crowns.
Mercy's denied; innocence drowned
How much more hatred do we really need?

All the revenge, inconsolable grief
Born of war, famine, disease and drought.
Anxieties breed miseries in doubt
In what shelter will we find relief?

All the numbing visions and heavy chains
Restrain soaring passions with deadly dreams.
Motives are vicious and desires are schemes
What is the capacity of humans for pain?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Supply and Demand

Yesterday, as I watched a woman boarding the bus, I had an insight about the endless supply of trespass and the universal demand for forgiveness.

The woman dropped a coin as she was getting her ticket. The coin hit the floor and unfortunately rolled right out the door. She didn't realize it, but she as searched in vain for it then dug in her pocketbook for another coin, she was inconveniencing every person already on the bus with the delay. Or was she?

It occurred to me while watching this scene that, in fact, the inconvenience, or trespass, if you will, may or may not have been felt by the other passengers. Some passengers--nodding off, looking out the window or reading--hadn't even noticed. Others who were in no hurry were not inconvenienced because it caused them no delay. The more I thought about it, the more apparent it became to me that inconvenience, trespass or insult can only be perceived by those who are already so disposed to feel that way.

In other words, the injury I am caused by someone else's action or inaction is entirely self-inflicted. By ignoring the situation or simply by turning away, I can avoid the needless self-mutilation that such thoughts bring about. Or, even better, I could realize that such trespasses against me are worthy of forgiveness so that those against whom I trespass unwittingly every hour of every day may choose to forgive me as well.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On a Mission From Lynda

Though it was long overdue and I had my uncertainites at the outset about the underlying reasons for performing the act, on a sultry sweat steeped July afternoon in Shreveport Louisiana, Stephen and I laid Lynda to rest on the grave of her first husband, Jack Smith.

My doubts had to do with the seeming contradiction between Lynda's lifelong religious affiliation and the fact that she expressly ordered me to have her cremated long before her death was imminent. As Jew, she certainly expressed a desire to be a part of the community and so accepted many aspects of the religious practice of it. But she could--and did--pick and choose among the requirements, or restrictions if you will, that suited her logic and temperament.

On the latter, she could ignore the language of the service because it didn't suit her to learn or even understand Hebrew; transliterations were sufficient. And as for logic, well, keeping kosher didn't make any sense to her, so keep kosher we did not. Filling up land with dead bodies didn't pass the logic test, so cremation it was to be.

My father also was clear about being cremated, and we scattered his ashes in England shortly after his death in 1981. It wasn't until after Bill's death that Lynda added the part about having her ashes scattered on her first husband Jack's grave.

So it was that Stephen and I set out on the morning of July 9, with Lynda's ashes--most of them, anyway--in a tupperware container in a box the back seat, right next to the cookies and soda. it seems a little ignominious when I say it that way, but honestly, Lynda never minded sitting in the back. She always had that element of 'Miss Daisy' who preferred to be chauffered about, and I was always happy to accommodate.

We could have driven stright through to Shreveport but we planned the trip to include a stop at my friend Henry's house in Nacodoches, which is in far East Texas. There in the midst of the piney woods and rich red soil he and his wife Glenda have a wonderful country home. Though Henry complains of the nuisances that all the 'critters' (squirrels, armadillos and moles, just to name the top three) give him, it's clear that he enjoys the luxury of the countryside, with the quiet, fragrant and most invitingly cool refuge that it offers.

After many days and weeks of record temperatures here in Austin, it was a delight to spend some time in the cool of the woods. We even went out back and shot his pellet rifle and 22 rifle just to say we'd done the country 'thing'. It certainly brought back a lot of memories from my childhood, when all we did from Saturday morning till Sunday night was hang out in the woods and shoot our pellet rifles till we ran out of ammo.

The next morning, however, it was time for Stephen and I to fulfill our 'Mission from Lynda'. We set out for Shreveport around eight and pulled into the sleepy little Louisiana town just before noon.

The cool from the East Texas woods had vanished the moment we crossed into Louisiana, which seems to be on a time zone that is about fifty years behind the rest of us. The roads themselves advertise the transition. Stephen shuddered and I drove very carefully.

We found the Greenwood Cemetery right away, but I wanted to get some flowers, so we circled back into town and asked where we could find a florist. The clerk at the Embassy Suites or wherever it was that we stopped merely did a Google search and printed the results for us. No map, no directions, but we found it nonetheless, using the Google map on my phone.

The front door to the florist was locked, but as I turned to leave, a woman in a suburban out front stepped out to let us in and sell us some flowers. When I told her what they were for, she gave us a wonderful bunch of freshly cut flowers, including one very bright and large sunflower, for just ten dollars.

Flowers in hand, we went back to the cemetery. Here's where my lack of planning got us stuck, if only briefly. I had assumed--and I know what 'they say' about assuming--that there would be an office of some kind at the cemetery. You know, somewhere where they have maps of the cemetery and and can look up the location of loved ones for visitors who show up not knowing where they are going.

Nope, no such office exists. There isn't even a map posted on the wall at the entrance. We drove around, aimlessly for a bit, hoping to find someone working in the cemetery that could give us a clue. Nope no such workers were present. And it makes sense, really. This cemetery is no longer active, which means that it just doesn't have the number of visitors that warrant an office, and since there are no new graves being dug here, there isn't even a groundskeeper on duty.

I made a couple of calls to local funeral parlors and found out that Greenwood Cemetery is now owned by the city of Shreveport, but that didn't get us any closer to Jack's grave. Then I remembered that Anne had been to visit the graves as an adult, so I called her to ask if she recalled exactly where to find them. Exactly, no, but in a general sense, she knew where they were. After a short search with this new information, I found the graves.

There are three graves side-by-side next to a tree in one of the oldest parts of the cemetery. Jack was first to pass, and his headstone is right next to a tree. Large today, it must have been just a sapling in 1946 when Jack was laid to rest. To the left of Jack's headstone is his step-father Lester's, and next to him is the marker for Jack's mother, Anne.

I know that Stephen had been here before and that there was considerable emotion surrounding this visit, but for my part, I felt strangely detached. It's a complex subject, Jack's death, involving as it does the issue of how I even came to be here. However I look at it, no matter how Lynda felt about him, I do not mourn Jack. I don't begrudge Lynda for loving him more than Bill, for Jack had the luxury of dying long before he could come up short of her expectations. That's simply the way it was when I came in, so to speak.

I did expect to honor her final wish, however, no matter how I felt about Jack, for this was something that seemed to transcend the issue of two fathers and addressed, perhaps setting to rest, finally, the issue of Lynda's true love. She missed Jack every day. This I know because I saw it or heard it many many times growing up. To be sure, her public display of heartache diminished with the years, but consider that when I asked her, in the months leading up to her death, what she'd done with the wedding band that Bill had given her, she said she'd sold it or given it away 'years ago'. The wedding ring that Jack gave her, however, was something she saved and passed on to her granddaughter when she was married.

We laid the flowers on Jack's grave and Steve began to scatter the ashes gently, letting the wind carry the soft bits away while raining down crystals of Lynda on the dry earth at our feet. I join him, scooping out the fluffy grey ashes that looked for all the world like moondust and passing it between our joined hands as she returned to the earth.

I cried for the first time since her death.

In this act, at this moment, I became more keenly aware of something I learned from Pierre's death. It was in fact the very motivation for making this trip to deliver Lynda to her final resting place. Even if I personally do not wish to be buried, I see now the value--and a very ancient human value it is indeed-- of putting someone to 'rest' in a specific place. The act of burial, or immolation, or scattering takes place in a place, and that place is not so much for the passed but for those who remain, those 'horsemen' who are just passing by.

I doubt seriously that I will ever return to Greenwood Cemetery in Shreveport to 'visit' Lynda, but it good to know, in a sense, where she 'is'.

Bye Mom.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Fiber News: You Read it Here First

I am not sure if I enjoy this feeling or not. Once again, in reading the news, I see that part of my vision for the future is already coming true.

A while back, I suggested in this very journal that nanotechnology would lead to computers made up of fibers. Well, here it is, one of the first examples of how this will work: a fiber camera.

So, Dear Reader, you may rightly say that even though you may now read about it on Discovery, you really read it here first!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The End of an Era

It is a sad day indeed, my fellow monks. Today in Ulm, a 'publisher' has announced plans to produce a book. Not The Book, mind you. Just a book.

How did this happen?

Many of you are already aware of the crisis that grips our noble profession from the Urals to the Fenlands. Many of you have already felt the effects of the many scriptorium closings and downsizings that are sweeping our feudal territories. Every day, the riders bring fresh news of another abbey in peril, another group of loyal scribes cast out in the cold with no market for their highly honed skills, another cut in the livelihood we have known for so many centuries now.

Where is the culprit? Some say it is Lucifer himself, come to the earth to destroy the livelihoods of the faithful copiers of The Book. They say he has come to destroy those who have for so long labored under the most difficult of working conditions in order to preserve the illusion of an unbroken line from The Book back to the ancients--whose writings we revere even as we manipulate them--to serve our Lord's needs and wishes.

Some say it is the economic depression of the past eleven hundred years that makes it difficult for the scriptoria to survive in these uncertain times. We know this to be false, however, for even as the entire economy of Europe has been crushed by the collapse of the Roman Empire, the fledgling scriptoria found a niche that they have preserved till this dark day.

The need for providing the same information, faithfully copied (except for the few tell-tale 'mistakes' included to provide dating information for later generations of scholars) over and over has not substantially diminished. One can simply never have enough hand-written copies of The Book.

And yet, change is coming. It is, perhaps, dear devotees, already here.

If the truth be known, the real culprit, the real reason that scriptoria are struggling to survive in the market today is the invention of the printing press.

Yes, that wild and wacky device that we thought would only be good for printing Book illustrations, pernicious pictures and soap advertisements appears to have caught on as an easy-to-use tool for anyone who can put three words together in a sentence and wants to see those words in print.

No longer does one have to join the Church, become celibate and live in cold, isolation and poverty in order to see their words in print. Now anyone--even females--can 'print' up hundreds or even thousands of copies of anything!

Worse, they can write even more and print that up as well. Where are the social barriers that kept the scriptural tradition alive and safe? Sure, literacy is still a privilege of the wealthy, but God knows their numbers are increasing as the Feudal system begins to collapse. And, while it is true that members of the new literate class still have to learn to read and write, where are the controls on the distribution of their works? There are none, alas.

Oh sure, these guys started out by printing The Book, but how long will it be before they are printing political messages, love poetry and--that cursed dog from hell--fiction? Some writers have already taken to writing epic poetry in the vernacular. Where will it end? We already have troubadours. Can science or novels be far off?

One Abbot--who declined to be named for this story--went so far as to say that "now, the focus is on promoting new 'writing' and creating secular 'journalists' while ignoring the value of scribes who have spent years honing their craft."

"It's not just the recession," he said, "A way of making a living is going away."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fifteen Books

This collection was inspired by a challenge that my brother David recently put up on FaceBook. This post is for those of you who might find this interesting but are not on FB...yet!

The idea is to put down, in just fifteen minutes, fifteen books that "will always stick with you". Here are mine:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

This book changed my life. I read it at a very critical juncture in my personal and intellectual growth, when I was 23 and desperately searching for meaning. I loved the story but didn't 'get' the philosophy until the second or third reading. I was so taken by this book that I made Lynda read it and was most disappointed when she was not as impressed as I was. Still I find things to learn about 'reality' and myself every time I re-read it, which is about once a year.

The Bible

I went to an Episcopalian school for the first six grades, and not only was Chapel a mandatory 'class' on Wednesday mornings, we also had Bible study as part of the curriculum. I loved hearing the stories of the patriarchs in the old Testament and the Parables in the New. Later, studying Art History in college, I came to discover the Psalms and of course, Revelations. I have two Bibles on my dresser. One was Lynda's, given to her in 1925 and so inscribed; the other was Valery's grandmother, Dorothy's. This is an illustrated bible, and while I find the pictures in it interesting, my real fascination is with the use of words in the Bible.

In Flanders Field, by Leon Wolff

This book was the crucible in which my commitment to pacifism was formed. Though in the face of life's cruelty I have perhaps softened that commitment, recalling that 300,000 men died in a single day during World War I is still enough to rouse in me ferocious anger at those men who would so willingly and callously sacrifice the best and the brightest of their time for so very little. After reading this, I was convinced that all war dead were so taken in vain. It was also the time of the Vietnam war, and there was some question of whether or not I would be drafted, but my convictions were not formed of fear, but anger.


Wow, was there ever a better horror story? Has Alien or Psycho or Jaws ever really scared anyone more or, for that matter has any story scared more kids down through time? Lynda read this to me at some point, and I have not forgotten my initial mental picture of Grendel: teeth and claws, bright red eyes; a vicious fear that is re-awakened whenever I re-read this. I have a comic book version but it is the one that a professor read to a class in the original Old English that most sticks with me.

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupery

And, was there ever a better love story? Actually, I am still trying to understand the meaning of this wonderfully simple tale. I read it, think I understand and know that I still do not. I am not daunted by this, merely encouraged to read it again with the eyes of a child. I am still trying.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I feel as if I actually lived in 19th century Russia for a time in my early twenties. I read this for a class, then re-read it over the summer just because I felt it was too short. I've never encountered a denser, richer, more engaging piece of fiction, and God knows I love Dickens, who doesn't even appear on this list...yet.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, by Marshall McLuhan

I am still reading this. McDonald Smith gave me a copy when we were seniors in high school but I didn't 'read' it till I was in college the first time, in my early twenties. I thought I got it back then, and it was an important revelation, but as I re-read it now, I realize that I am just opening my eyes to the transformation that the electric field is currently (get it?) causing in our society.

Selected Poems, by W.B. Yeats

Yeats is my favorite poet of all time. Sailing to Byzantium is my favorite poem. I keep this book by my bedside.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Here's one I haven't re-read in a long time. I read it in Paris, while hanging out in the Cafe Select and Le Dome in Montparnasse. No, I never made it on a fishing trip to Spain, but in 1976, I experienced what may have been the very last vestige of the Paris that Hemingway lived, and his writing inspired me as it did a generation before. I'm afraid I didn't emulate him that well as, alas, my prose still suffers from 'too many words'.

In Bluebeard's Castle, by George Steiner

Dense engaging prose that led me to re-evaluate my cultural heritage (ie Jewish) and set a standard for the quality and clarity of thought that my own prose should emulate. That hasn't happened, yet, but one of the essays in the book, along with The Gutenberg Galaxy and Snow's Two Cultures form the axes of a theory of literary criticism that I am developing.

Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

I was devastated when Charlotte died. Really. I have never mourned for a fictional character in quite the same way again.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson

I'll admit, reading this book made me want to do drugs. Lots of drugs. More drugs. Different drugs. Seriously I cannot remember laughing longer and harder while reading a book. Just thinking about the over-pressurized tires on the 'White Whale' makes me chuckle. And does anyone know where I can get some adrenachrome (sp)?

Jaws, by Peter Benchley

Talk about a page turner! I was waiting for the bus to go to work while reading the scene where the scientist gets eaten by, well, the shark, and missed it--twice. I may have read the whole book that day. The movie, good as it was, was, of course, lame by comparison.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

One of my most recent reads and among the most inspirational books I have ever read. Bryson's ability to make even the most difficult scientific theories and subjects readable and relevant instantly inspired me to read more about science. I came away from this book believing in the power of original thought and possessed of the notion that I too am capable of it.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes

This book has an impossibly long title for a subject that is really pretty simple. Jaynes is not the most rigorous of scholars, but his argument is so compelling that I can overlook the similarities with many crackpot socio-linguistic theories. It seems a shame that the work is overshadowed by less adventurous empirical theories, and it may well be recovered as we learn more about the brain from magnetic imaging.