The Next Best Thing

Christopher J. Stephens

© Copyright 2004 by Christopher J. Stephens

Photo of an infant with an identity braclet (c) 2004 by Richard Loller.

Simplify, cleanse, re-new: some suggestions

            My mother recently moved from her five bedroom home in the suburbs to a two bedroom apartment at an elderly living complex two towns away. It took a while, but over thirty years of stuff had to be assessed, prioritized, packed up and moved out. She ended up giving me a bedroom set, sofa bed, and bookcase. Why? She’s simplifying, cutting down, streamlining. She had never been the type to collect and collate and cross reference. If anything, my mother was a role model when it came to determining what she needed, why, and when something had simply served its purpose.

            Where did I go wrong? Why have I spent most of the past twenty years latching on to magazines, notebooks, CD mixes and cassette tapes? Perhaps it came from other family members. No matter, recently I knew I had to take steps to start changing my life. I had no choice.

            First, admit you are powerless over collecting flyers, coupons, anything left at your doorstep.  You save all junk mail that comes your way, electronic or otherwise, convinced it can be  put to use at some point. The books in your living room are collecting dust. You haven’t read most of them for five or ten years, but they mean something special. You can remember the time and day you bought that book and how it affected you. There are boxes of stuff from your undergraduate college days, boxes from your graduate school days, and old love letters stuffed in shoeboxes. You have job cover letters, newspaper clippings, and yellowed magazines from fifteen years ago. You pay steep rent and live alone because of all your stuff. How do you let it go?

            I surrendered to the powerlessness twenty-five years ago. It was 1977, and I started collecting newspapers. For two years, I stockpiled everything. Then, in the summer of 1979, I came back from vacation to see that my father had thrown away everything. I had spent a few weeks with his mother, who had her own basement collection of carefully displayed magazines and condensed books. There was no explanation from my father. He just needed the space.

            We usually acquire things when we move from place to place as a way to retain old memories. With me, I tried to hold on to what I had. Maybe once or twice a year, I’d be compelled to throw out notebooks from philosophy courses, or old high school final exams. The compulsion to clean house came, though, only so that I could collect more stuff.  I had my yearbook, and there were newspaper clippings in there. What was the point in keeping everything else when I didn’t really do much in high school?

            I’ve learned how to throw away things over the past few months for practical reasons. Life changes force everybody towards reality. How can I move to a smaller place with all this stuff? Yeah, but those huge silver file cabinets from Office supply stores are enticing. If only I could get a few of those and put my stuff in order. I could hire somebody to alphabetize everything and color-coordinate my moods. Isn’t that the meaning of the good life? A lifestyle manager could come to my apartment and sort through my closet, throw away raggedy shirts and those black pants with holes in the seat. Advise me. Guide me. Pamper me. Tell me what I need to get done.

            Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. We can get rid of our stuff only by admitting that the heaviest burden is the baggage nobody sees. Bitterness, regret,  resentment, and blaming everybody else for your troubles takes up more space than any book collection. It’s amazing how that has slipped away with each box of trash and recyclable material I put out on the curb every Thursday night. I breathe better. I can finally see through the clutter and nonsense. It’s taken a long time for me to sort through that rubbish, to finally admit that I can do without some stuff. Every time that truck comes around to pick up my trash, I have another chance at renewal.

You Are What You Eat

             Last year’s push by fast food companies to offer more healthy alternatives seemed a bit desperate. Likewise to those who filed class action lawsuits against food chains when they awoke in their thirties and found themselves four hundred pounds.  Where is the accountability? Where is the self-respect and the drive towards making yourself better? Better yet, what’s wrong with vegetarianism?

     It was 1980.  I was sixteen and in need of a cause.  I eliminated meat and went to all cheese,  salads,  fruits, pasta, and saltine crackers.  I didn’t become physically heavy. I just turned into a pretentious teenager. My mother’s uncles, butchers a generation removed from Italy, settled in Newark, New Jersey in the fifties. They moved away when the city burned down in 1967, but meat remained in their blood and was supposed to be in mine.  Family dinners centered on the beef carving. My father’s electric knife slices were thin, the juices were rich, and the succulent red of the meat lingered forever. This dinner meant you had arrived.   An uncle, visiting from Jersey, sat in awestruck wonder at a dinner we had one evening at a famous local Steak House. Teary-eyed, voice cracking, he looked at my mother after taking a bite from his Porterhouse Steak and proclaimed “Bellissimo!”

            In the fall of 1971, when I was seven, my father took us six kids out to the back of the house one Saturday and we killed approximately two hundred chickens that had been housed in our garage.  It was a neighborhood event.  Two dozen kids ended up there that day, each given specific assignments. There were grabbers, pluckers, blood drainers. My father and brother were the only ax wielders. With the head removed and thrown into the nearby lake, the chicken’s body ran aimlessly before collapsing.  That winter, some of the chicken heads floated to the top of the lake and ice formed around them

            These images linger and have solidified my choice of vegetarianism. I admit that extremist vegetarians can be an insufferable group. I will not take brochures for any cause, nor will I stand in the way of them being distributed.  I enjoy talking with PETA or other concerned animal rights groups but I’m too lazy to join and pay dues. It’s nothing personal.  I feel queasy only from the self-righteous who claim they have the truth.

 I will not convert you. I will not throw red paint on your mink coat. Give me leather shoes, and I’ll quietly wear them until I can buy something less cruel.  I won’t stop you from eating genetically grown vegetables.  Walk proudly with that peacock around your neck and somebody, somewhere, somehow will tell you it looks good. It’s amazing how much a lifetime of humiliation can be washed away from one well-placed compliment.  Allow me my Garden Burgers in a barbecue joint or an achingly politically correct, collectively-owned restaurant. If you’re curious, there’s always room at my table for one more person.

The Rest Is Silence: A War Diary

              I’ve spent my life washing in words, empty platitudes, great novels and unforgettable short stories. As an adjunct college English teacher I hide behind the shield of Shakespeare, the fortress of Fitzgerald, the dungeon of Dickinson . My experts have an answer for every situation. My panel of geniuses will offer at least a modicum of sage wisdom and pointed advice when I’ve lost my way. I am a teaching transient, an educational mercenary hired for a semester or two, stuffed full with exaggerated expectations of changing the world through exposing students to the transcendent beauty of English. When I’m finished, I move on. There’s no time for disappointments at an incomplete mission.

            It used to be easier, before this war, before 9/11. The cloistered convent of right-brained, subjective academia asked of me to simply have my students prove willing to personally connect with a text. From the stylized violence of A Clockwork Orange through to the scarring domestic and sexual abuse of The Color Purple, all the pain was there for the asking, easily swallowed with no bitter after taste. To read it was to become absolved of any obligation to personally create a positive outcome for the characters. You just had to understand the words and that knowledge was guaranteed to make you feel better. That’s how I taught, and that’s how I failed my students.

            Why am I now so ashamed to be an English teacher during war time? Why am I so embarrassed to think I can find solace in writing? There is more nobility in carpentry, plumbing, law enforcement. These things serve a tangible purpose. They fill immediate needs. There’s no point to reading, thinking, or dreaming during war time. But I just can’t turn off thoughts when as a five year old, in 1969, I watched Cronkite deliver Vietnam War casualty reports as I sat down to dinner with my family. At least the coldness of those numbers was true, and the black and white footage raw and brutal. I should have been satisfied with those facts, but even then I opted for the fantasy of art.

            Words have failed me, and like Hamlet’s farewell, the rest is silence. Ignore the sonnet, the perfect architecture of a love ballad, or the heroic nobility of Willy Loman. Hamlet was right. This is where it’s supposed to end. Recently, one of my students, a police officer in a class filled with Boston ’s finest, gave a presentation called “Give War A Chance.” It was good, but obviously my touchy-feely altruistic mission had failed. Wasn’t I supposed to show the redemptive, healing powers of writing? I was worried I wouldn’t be able to successfully separate my personal feelings about this war from professional observations about an effective essay. I said nothing. Silence.

             As the semester ended and the war raged that spring of 2003, I was teaching heroism and how a tragic flaw makes everything interesting. Once my class was a refuge from the real world, but no longer. I would bring the world in and directly connect it to the literature, to their lives. My students will probably still see war as just a supplement to their lives. The words I give them need to be performed, pinned down by a political agenda, visualized, matched with the rhythm of their heartbeats. What is the American Dream? How does it fail Willy Loman in “Death Of A Salesman”? Which is bigger, Willy or the Dream? More important, how is the 21st Century American Dream represented overseas, particularly in the Middle East , through our films, music, movies and plays? Why do so many of them hate us?

      If successful, maybe then I will once again feel my work is dignified, that it matters and will positively impact the lives of these students. Maybe it will drive them to turn up the volume on the TV War coverage or even listen to radio for alternate perspectives. Bombs bursting in air, and Defense Department cleared video from embedded journalists, will then have clear consequences. “This is what the context requires,” Don Delillo wrote in his 1997 novel UNDERWORLD, and it perfectly suits my needs. Context is everything. Nerve gas and collateral damage, contextualized, become more than just bold-printed words in souvenir war programs. If one student connects war terminology with its eventual outcome, my work will have served its purpose. I might resume watching this TV war, but probably still in silence.

Creative Writing For Cops

He was a thirty-year veteran sergeant on the Boston Police Bomb Squad, and a student in my "Creative Writing" class three summers ago; he was hefty, bald, with a twinkling smile. I gave assignments like "Write Yourself As An Inanimate Object," where they created first-person narratives in the voice of a rock, the ocean, an ancient Redwood tree in California . They wrote one scene from the perspective of several different characters. I wanted them to understand that great writing is "found," that there was poetry in subway graffiti. Scribbles can't be completely washed away.

I had been prepared for complete resistance from everybody in that creative writing class. One of them wrote of coming upon a man who had jumped in front of a train. Another wrote about drug dealers and lowriders and the tendency for certain groups to drive certain cars, "which is why we have to pull them over and we can't apologize for it." I played a cut from the "New Yorker Out Loud" CD, actor Viggo Mortenson reading journal excerpts from Jack Kerouac. Roll, baby. Roll. Let's blow this joint. My class of police officers listened for fifteen minutes, and responded negatively to the cool jazz hipster scene Kerouac represented. "Why is that writing?" they asked. "What did he give to the world except a headache for the cops?"

I had assumed they would like the cool detachment of James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential and James M. Cain's The Postman Only Rings Twice, as did I. To adjust a curriculum specifically for the interests of a target audience was patronizing and demeaning, but I felt drawn to the literature of right and wrong, of crime and punishment. There was something strangely seductive and romantic about the life of a detective, a private eye, two cops who vowed to cover each other's back, no matter what. It meant Gary Cooper in "High Noon," the conscience of his town, standing up for what mattered. It was Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon," searching for "the stuff that dreams are made of." These policemen and women had seen everything, and I wanted to hear it all.

At times, we went on tangents. My bomb squad guy wrote three detailed accounts of a murder scene from the perspective of the teenaged Loverboy, the washed-up wife, and the spurned husband, who came home to kill the teen. Loverboy's narrative was even written from beyond the grave. We discussed racial profiling and the politics of small town squad rooms. We talked about justice, fairness, why nobody really gets a break. I imagined long boredom stretches interrupted by calls to domestic violence, or visits to an unsuspecting suburban family of five o'clock in the morning to tell them that their daughter had been killed in a car crash. They spoke of all this not in tones of those who hid their feelings or else they would crumble, but rather as professionals who had come to understand that evil exists and justice is worth defending.

Their assignments were perfectly presented, from first to final typed draft. Each evening, somebody read from their journal while we spent the bulk of our time analyzing a particular classmate's story. They had read it over the week and provided written commentary. All I did was sit back and let them roll. We discussed character development, motivation, symbolism, multiple plot lines. The real work came with each successive draft, each time they saw that things could be seen in a different light, from an alternate angle, and still have the ring of truth.

This summer I'm teaching another creative writing class with the same population. I often think about my police officers from that and several other classes. I can still see my Bomb Squad Guy, eyes twinkling in a smile as he came to understand that his writing had a touch of beauty, a strain of world-weary and honestly earned melancholy. These students told me I helped them understand that there were many ways to see a single situation, endless variations on one strong theme. I couldn't tell them then, but I can tell them now, that they made me feel like I knew something and that I was somebody. They made me feel like my indecisiveness, low self-esteem, and tendency to ramble covered up the makings of a good teacher and a respectable man. This is a debt I doubt I'll never be able to repay.

Every Picture Tells A Story

 mother Vi was fifty-nine when she died in 1976. In a home movie of one visit she made to us in 1969 from her home in Missouri, she looked very skeletal.  A small woman with a big head, a chain-smoker fond of the occasional racy story, Vi seemed seventy in this footage, but she was only fifty-two. She applauded while we sang for her. She pulled my older brother onto her lap. In a quick cut to a park scene by Lexington’s Minuteman statue, she walked across a bridge with my mother and two year old little sister. Then, she was gone.  Absence had a way of creating great myths and legends.

            In 1972, we spent the summer with her. She was fifty-five, and deathly ill. When she wasn’t in bed, she spent her time shuffling around the house in worn pink slippers and a fuzzy bathrobe. There were many still pictures of her from that trip. In all of them she wore a smirk and grasped a cigarette in one hand as the other played with the hair of a random grandchild. She seemed to know she wasn’t going to last much longer and she wanted to soak in all available time with us. After all, our time together was rare. We were separated by half a continent and that awkwardness of kids not knowing what the word “grandmother” really meant.

            It’s a 1929 black and white photo of her that speaks loudest to me. Vi is twelve, posed with her sister Betty Ruth, brother George,  father George, and mother Ruth. They are in the back of their family gas station. The senior George is standing behind a large tire. He is a huge man in dirty overalls, grimly staring and carrying a wrench he might use on one of the kids once this photo shoot is over. He seems to have been baked by the sun.

Ruth is pale, tiny, all in white, and six months pregnant. She is squinting, her left hand shielding her eyes. She and the child she is carrying will be dead within three months. Betty Ruth, five, is sitting in a tire in front of her mother, a dirty doll on her lap. Young George is sitting to the far left, alone and nearly out of the frame. His hands are at his temples as if his head will soon explode. Vi is at the far right, in the foreground. She is wearing a white, knee-length dress, work shoes, white socks, and a defiant smile. She is looking directly into the lens and probably thinking: We were poor and sometimes we had troubles but we got through the hard times together as a family. I see this picture and I think of Vi’s oldest, my mother. I think of my sisters and my nieces and understand how the strength, perseverance, and dignity of the women in my family has run deep and wide over these many years.

Universal Health Care- Just a Dream?

            My mother had a perfect view from the 11th floor Cardiac Care room during her five day stay at a leading Boston hospital. She watched the boats sail the Charles River and pass under the Longfellow Bridge . “It’s also called ‘The Salt and Pepper Bridge ,” a nurse pointed out. Mom watched the Red Line head in towards the city, and out to Alewife. Her time was spent enduring all sorts of medical tests, entertaining well-wishers, talking on the phone, and relaxing. This was a sixty-eight year old woman burdened with a wide assortment of medical problems, but about one thing she was certain. She was covered by medical insurance.

            It was a hard, stressful summer for my mother. She had been in the final stages of preparing her large suburban home to be sold, and she was ready to sign the papers on an elderly independent living complex. This is what happens when we age, but you don’t have to be a widow heading into her seventh decade for life to catch up to you. Things happen. Blinking signposts and orange caution cones show up on your perfectly paved road when you least expect them, and it is sometimes only naturally to get that call to slow down.

            Many of the people on that ward had been there for several weeks. Her suite mate, for instance, was in her fifth week. The ward claimed to have a short turn-around, from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, with patients either spending post-op care at a Rehabilitation Center , or going home. My mother was stricken while visiting my sister. Had she gotten ill minutes earlier, on the highway rather than in my sister’s apartment house parking lot, she would not have made it. “I probably would have had to bag ‘er,” the EMT told my sister. “You called us just in time.”

            The fear of getting sick is still there for the medically insured. Most people do not want to be ill, nor do they like it. Life is meant to be relished, embraced, celebrated. People usually do not want to surrender themselves to the care and feeding of health care professionals, no matter their high ethics and good intentions. We want autonomy, but there are times when we need to surrender. What happens when we fall and there is no safety net?

 Too many people, like me, are involuntarily gambling with our lives. We tread lightly through our days, avoiding smokers, hoping friends have spare inhalers we can use when our asthma gets out of control and we stop breathing on our own. One careless driver plowing into us as we cross a busy street will spell our financial ruin. I have three jobs, and I do what I can to maintain stability; emotional, physical, and economic equilibrium. Life without health care is a constant reminder that one slip on a dirty patch of ice or one poorly chosen step up the stairs can result in the end of everything.

It is easy to politicize this issue. Quiet, measured observations suddenly erupt into racial profiling and ethnic stereotypes about those who take advantage of the system, exploit loopholes, and come out with huge tax breaks at the end of their fiscal years.  Pinning the blame on hard working people takes it away from the real culprits: United, Polaroid, Wal-Mart, and others cheap with offering health care and unashamed about siphoning away every last penny of worker pension plans as a way to stay afloat. The simple, hard worker is that rock in the otherwise flawless tread of the tire that keeps us moving. Pulling the rock out and patching the leak with duct tape will not solve the problem.

            Hospitals can be lonely. Smiling candy stripers visiting with books and warm thoughts are no substitute for real friends and solid connections. Medical students roam in and out of your room, sit nervously by your bedside, but they do not authentically connect. My mother was fortunate to have compassionate care from professionals who took the time to correct issues that had long been dismissed by others. We all are not that lucky. In a country like ours, this lack of equality is a shame we can no longer afford to keep ignoring.

The Sound Of Silence

             I wonder how it would feel to take a vow of silence. Forget about joining a convent, and don’t get me started on any celibacy commitments. I’m talking about just keeping my mouth shut and walking through my days in quiet contemplation.

I’ve been able to do that a lot lately, and it’s been interesting. Human nature, lack of general self-esteem or confidence, and birth order in a large family sometimes dictates how much you choose to say in your regular life. I didn’t talk until I was three years old, and as an adult I became a teacher, regularly lecturing before countless classes of strangers. Outside of class, I am a quiet man. What would people think if I went full time? How would I be perceived?

     Think about the power voices carry when they want to get something done. They are shrill, deep, twisted, gnarled, raspy and seductive. Voices join together in righteous indignation. Voices unite to sing praise in a gospel choir. If they suddenly fall silent, would anybody notice? The only advocate we have in this world, when everything else is stripped away, is our own inherent will to survive.  Look in the mirror, and the image you see shouldn’t be shouting back at you. Any words that need communicating will not have to be spoken.

            As your year of voluntary silence begins, everything vocal from your old life is removed. You will order groceries through the Internet, and maybe even venture outside your apartment every other day to go to the gym, but you won’t talk. You won’t say a word to anybody. Maintain eye contact, proper hygiene, smile at people, but otherwise stay silent. Balance your days between healthy mind and body and think about what happened to draw you towards the need for silence. Dust off the books in your library and get acquainted with them. Listen to the great symphonies and concertos of the past five hundred years. They’ll be your only friends for a while.

            For years,  I was a rambler, unable to choose one track in my train of thought while I spoke with people. My attention span remained that of a six year old, always eager to jump at the next interesting topic that came across my desk.  Worse than the rambling, though, was my stammering. To stammer is to stumble over syllables in a nervous rush to the finish line.  Suddenly, the tongue becomes thick. The words are never finished. My stammering came through repetition of ideas, rambling over the same tired phrases, and the assumption that every idea I had was so precious it needed repeating at least half a dozen times.  My speech problems were never a medical problem. They came from excess pride.

            Many of my students are terrified to speak up in class, which is why I sometimes find my distance education classes more exciting. It can be a more authentic form of communication. Stripped of any prejudices about appearances, body language, or quality of voice, many of my distance education students seem to be more open to intellectual breakthroughs. We read the same stories, post messages in the team and discussion areas, and they have the freedom to talk at length without fear of being interrupted. By seeing their dialogue on the screen before posting it for all to see, they take the time to think before the dialogue bubble pops up above their heads. If only all of us could have that luxury in our real lives.

            It would be nice to spend a year without talking. This wouldn’t have to mean isolation. We could send instant messages through the Internet, and forge tighter bonds with people in the outside world. Think of the significance that can come from a look of love across a crowded, smoky room. Imagine the power of a perfectly timed and properly placed caress from a loved one. Listen to the wordless lyrical phrases of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Words are too much with us these days. Let’s have a moratorium on filibusters, a termination of starting a conversation with your traveling partner for the sake of talking. Listen to the silence. It’s beautiful.

You Must Remember This

            There are easy ways to tell if you’ve been cursed with total recall. As a child, it probably started with music. You memorized the lyrics to every Beatles song and wrote them in the margins of your school notebooks. Even now, over a quarter century later, the combination to your 8th Grade Gym Locker intrudes and takes place alongside your PIN, Internet password, and phone message retrieval code. Classmates called on you to act out whole scenes from horror movies, or recall all the bit players in the Watergate burglary. Teachers gave you a few minutes to do a stand-up act at the end of every homeroom because otherwise there was no way to contain all the information you’d stuffed in your mind.

            Academically, there was no place in your life for numbers and statistics or scientific quotients. Your memory was devoted to the trivial and small details from previous generations. Life for everybody else plunged forward into college applications, Senior Proms, and the thrill of being spontaneous. The rest of your generation lived for the moment and threw everything away for the thrill of a Friday night. You played along with then, but you always had one foot back in the world of the insignificant.

Simply put, your mind became a sponge for pop culture tidbits.  As a ten year old, you carried the 1974 GUINESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS in your chubby little fingers like you were Moses down among the common people about to expose the ten commandments. People in your life were always at a loss to recall things, so you picked up the slack. Nothing was too usesless.  Bert and Ernie from “ Sesame Street ” got their names from minor characters in what classic movie? [“It’s A Wonderful Life.”] What did Woody Guthrie have written on his guitar? [“This Machine Kills Fascists.”]

            The only way to make a living with this memory was to teach people how to read, what to read. Your memory told you that the greatest strength was through writing about the past. Anybody could do it. You taught Literature, Creative Writing, and with each word you read you remembered more about the particular styles your students were learning how to develop. Was there a need to strictly follow lesson plans and drill into your students all those stale dramatic and poetic terms they’d have to recall for the mid-term? Of course not. There was no need to follow notes because you remembered it all.

            My memory seems to have become a curse, a heavy anchor around my neck. Rather than lose it as I get older, I seem to be gaining the power of recall. Unfortunately, I remember more of the bad things: the suicide of a high school classmate, falling through ice as a thirteen year old, and the 1969 Moon landing on my fifth birthday.  The 1985 car crash death of my sister is always with me because there are reminders of her in everything I know or do. My father’s 1997 death stays because there was still so much I needed to tell him. It all swims together in a sometimes murky audio/visual memory recall because there is too much lacking in our lives at the moment. Hiding in books and remembering lost loved ones is easier than balancing your checkbook or making plans in May for what you want to do in September.

            The only thing certain for those with perfect recall is that life is arranged by opposites. With each death there is always a birth. I will remember January 27th., 2005, rushing out to the North Shore to see my best friend and her newborn baby son. He was a few hours old, shivering and asleep in his incubator. Two days later, I held this baby for the first time and felt the connection between the blessings of a new life and the burden of a perfect memory. I will put my own inner whining and complaining about a leaning towards the trivial in my own life on pause for a while. I see the life of this baby and I am convinced that anything is possible for my own future.

What’s On Your Screen?

                Computer wallpaper says too much about our personalities. Not being able to stick with one choice for more than a week says even more. We separate our lives between  wallpaper we choose for work, and the outlandish choice we settle on at home. Flying toasters and Dilbert are cool office screensavers, but what was suitable wallpaper? Rows of American flags made me dizzy. I liked the sweep effect of several different wallpaper choices displayed approximately every thirty seconds, but I could never figure out how to program that into my computer.

            I never bothered with  wallpaper at my last job. First, there was no computer in my office. Second, I wouldn’t have been able to be subdued or neutral with my choice. If I’d chosen computer wallpaper at that job, I would have changed options every day in a desperate cry for help.  Look at this crazy picture I found of poker-playing dogs sitting around a table! It’s perfect for the office! Twenty-four hours later, something crazier would have surfaced.

            My home computer, over three years old, has everything. I use it for work and other surfing purposes. At first, I settled for the computer’s wallpaper options. For a while I had the rural scene, but that got boring. There was a long stretch when I had the paradise beach scene. The ocean was green and almost three dimensional. It reminded me of the place where my friend lived when she worked in The Bahamas.  That became depressing.  Every morning the picture teased me- “If you were ambitious and you took risks, you could be here now.”

            I wavered between Homer Simpson and Humphrey Bogart, then finally settled on Marlon Brando. Would he be stretched out? Would I zoom in on any particular features? The options were overwhelming, but I didn’t bother with them. My computer was for work, and I couldn’t afford to feed my neurotic tendencies worrying about wallpaper. Or could I?

            In grade school, we had the top of our desks and we never left the rooms. I had pictures of the Beatles and carefully drawn psychedelic patterns. In high school, there were technicolor Mead Trapper Keepers [or as they said in my neighborhood “trappa keepas”] with cool designs and enough room for a flask of liquor of you were so inclined. We decorated our lockers with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED swimsuit model pictures. These were innocent days, remember, but we still needed to speak out and put our own spin on the world. Everything we carried, and all the choices we made to adorn our bodies, had to be perfect. The panel of cool and perfect judges was out there drawing their conclusions.

            When all hope seemed lost, and I figured I would just forget about special PC adornments, I stumbled on the perfect wallpaper. Why was it perfect? Who would be there to pass judgement and give me their seal of approval?  I felt like unveiling my decision before the assembled community, but there was nobody to impress save for my elderly landlords who lived above me and were only now probably getting acquainted with cable TV.

            Here was the sacred gift uncovered from the Golden Temple. I found a picture of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan flanking Frank Sinatra at his 75th Birthday party. The time: December, 1995. Sinatra is in the middle, with Bruce on his right and Bob on his left. Bruce is wearing a goatee,  a hopeful look, and all black. Bob is scowling, as usual, his white shirt buttoned down to reveal a black T-shirt. Frank is old school, in formal attire and looking off to the distance. He would be dead within three years. The picture looks like a retirement party for a Union boss, with Bruce and Bob as brothers, heirs to Dad’s legacy. The collective impact these three have had on 20th Century pop culture is what amazes me more than any beachfront paradise scene or floating “Spongebob“ characters.  Springsteen, Dylan, and Sinatra would have been a great trio.  I hear their great music every time I see the picture, and I won’t be changing this wallpaper for a long time.

What the words mean

            I was supposed to teach him conversational English. He was a Japanese Heart surgeon who had been here for forty-eight hours and was soon to start work at a major Boston teaching hospital.  I also needed to understand the obstacles between him and a full understanding of the meaning beneath the words we all spoke with ease every day. My own insecurities about public speaking and how I cam across to strangers were irrelevant. ESL teachers were not supposed to let their students see them sweat. Don’t break down or stammer or fall into some sort of nervous speech pattern. Immediately I thought of Guy Smiley, the exaggerated game show host muppet from “Sesame Street.” There was no chance of pulling this off without a little theatrical flair.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get into teaching to become a performer. My motivation was quite the opposite. I started teaching English and writing because I wanted to hide behind the artifice and pomposity of the grand literary statement. My goal was to convince students through my earnestness that there was only one way to see a story, essay, poem, or play: my way. In that respect, I was no different than many other beginning adjunct college English Instructors. We were passive aggressive narcissists too ashamed to admit that the biggest thrill rested in knowing that our classes were sacred ground and we were the only valid conduits through which the commandments could truly be understood.

I had never formally taught ESL, certainly not on a on-to-one level. Before class, I drew from common sense and instinct to determine my goals . I would take into account body language, inflection, particular cultural tendencies, and mix them with the thick sludge that is a Boston accent. These were the patients my student would encounter, and this was the “English” he would need to understand. Cut a clear path through the woods and map out the route. Some other teacher would have to build the road.

            We had three ninety-minute sessions, with a half hour coffee break, and a one hour lunch. I had developed a lesson plan the night before that included readings from William Carlos Williams, the great writer/doctor of Patterson, NJ., and Sherwin Nuland, author of How We Die. I wanted him to see the poetry and grace many doctors have used in writing about their profession. Express to me the awesome beauty of holding a beating heart in your hand, and you will go far.

            High-concept lesson plans, and strict adherence to prescribed standards, automatically crumble under the weight of their own pomposity. That’s what happened with my ideas for that day. We didn’t need great literature to learn conversational English. We didn’t need to stand in the shadow of other people’s ideas, read aloud their graceful language, to absorb the grace of English. That would be too easy and, in many ways, the lazy man’s escape plan.

            I ditched the literature plans and instead learned this man’s story. Prior to moving here, he had studied English for five hours a week over the past year. Most Japanese students, he told me, were taught English as children.  The problem was that their teachers had thick Japanese accents and the words were hard to understand when later heard spoken by native English speakers. As a surgeon in Japan he was used to certain standards and expectations that might not be available here. How could he properly and effectively communicate with colleagues and patients here in a new country? Would they misinterpret his intentions even if his English proved flawless?

            It was a day of improvisations and role playing. I transformed myself into a belligerent, morbidly obese 60 year old smoker. Tell me I need a heart transplant and don’t apologize. Maintain eye contact, and stay away from excessively long medical terms. I told him to think of the heart as a metaphor. Study “The Big Dig” and radio traffic reports about the clogged central artery. Your patients will understand that much better than charts only a doctor could possibly understand.  Composure, an animated presentation, and a relaxed, focused demeanor will get you everywhere. Good luck to him, and all other newly arrived professionals in our country. It’s easy to learn English. We all struggle to speak it, but we’re not struggling alone.

Eye of the beholder

It seems there is some alarming news this year for ugly kids. Suddenly, in what can only be seen as a wave of shattering enlightenment, ugly people cannot catch a break. It has been this way for them since childhood. Dad will not bother to strap them in baby carriages. Mom will only strap in about four percent of their ugly offspring. Homely children will be more likely to wander away from their parents [who could blame them?]  Attractive girls are apparently the most prized and lucrative asset the modern parent can have in their portfolio.

Self-improvement reality shows have been selling us the apparent need to chisel away at our individual traits and blend in more effectively with the rest of the world. “The Swan,” “Dr. 90210,” and “Extreme Makeover” were the trinity of sob story telecasts that worked both ends of the respectability spectrum. On one hand, they often helped the disfigured and abused restore a sense of confidence after a life-altering tragedy. On the other hand, though, they more often than not catered to a pitiful need in most of these people to make themselves totally unrecognizable. MTV’s “I Want A New Face” unapologetically followed a series of pitiful characters willing to chop away at this or suck out that in order to look like their favorite celebrities.

            Just one of the headlines announcing a Spring 2005 University of Alberta in Canada study was enough to produce visions of a world where only the charming and dynamic get a break: “Alarming news about ugly kids.” In an instant, we seem to have found the missing ingredient that has been plaguing poets and philosophers longer than Joan Rivers has been haunting celebrities on the red carpet. We know ugly. By process of elimination, then, we must know beauty. Can a concrete definition of “truth” be far behind?

            Dr. Andrew Harrell claims that our inclination to hold beauty close while pushing away ugliness is rooted in instinctive Darwinian response. The beautiful children are tangible proof of our superior genetic material. They are the ones who will immediately be pushed to the front of the line, allowed to cross the other side of the velvet rope. Somehow, our mildly engaging DNA mingled with another person’s far from remarkable features, and we would be remiss if we shoved these children aside. The meek and the plain and the ordinary make the world; the beautiful are destined to inherit it.

            I am one of the non-attractive. I am not ugly or homely or gruesome, just among the millions of us everyday who can be categorized as an acquired taste. My chest is shaped like a root beer barrel. I am big-headed and bald.  My feet are flat, and I have been told that my ears are floppy. I have bad teeth, pale skin, and I cannot grow a decent beard if my life depended on it. We are always taught to grab on to something and build a life around it: kind eyes, warm smile, nicely dressed. That has had to be my approach and I plan to stick with it. I make good with what I inherited and I have learned to compensate for my utter ordinary nature.

            Unfortunately, I have also bought in to the culture of beauty and cosmetic superiority. As witnessed by my Lurch-like mugshot, I should not be the arbiter of that which is attractive, or those who are ugly. Nevertheless, I see it every day and I am at times a shallow man. We all are. We like to profess that our interests are purely spiritual, or that we can see beneath the surface level of everything, but we still hold fast to unrealistic ideals of truth and beauty. We claim to embrace all God’s creatures, but secretly we shake our heads whenever we encounter His little mistakes.

I may at times be shallow, but I still know ugly when I see it. I see the ugly in high-class, manicured, and cultivated women who scream at their kids to behave. I see the homely in pampered, privileged, pretentious metrosexuals holding their noses as they push their way through subway turnstiles, afraid to mingle with the rest of us. Where are the attractive people? They’ve blended into the scenery. Watch out. Where and how they show up next might surprise you.

Why I Teach Writing


  I have no choice. I can’t build houses or perform heart bypasses or do income tax returns. I teach because it’s all I know. The flame of writing can sometimes bloom out of control. Where do I want to steer it? How do I want my students to see themselves in words strung together to become sentences, paragraphs, and finally essays? I can’t let them know the most successful among them are alchemists who have distilled the best mixture of sweat, inspiration, fear and desire into a chemical property that becomes their grand statement. They need to learn that on their own. I’m just the facilitator.
  In an ideal world, my college writing students will sit outside under palm trees, discuss the classics, and start our own efforts based on these classic models. We will draw from an expansive, complete definition of the idea “classic” and use our hearts and common sense to weed out the good from the bad. The class will become a supportive atmosphere during which they will critique the work of their classmates based on prescribed standards. They will grow as writers and human beings for one major reason: the willingness to maintain their integrity and dignity while showing a willingness to be vulnerable.
The gimmicks and effective tools are always interesting. Tell a multi-character story from many perspectives. Become an inanimate object and speak in that voice. Dig up old love letters and mold them into fiction. Everything is subject to your whim. I have used these assignments for years with students who for decades have worked as police officers. Creative Writing is the last thing they want to do, and the least easy idea for them to understand. They deal in facts and a clearly delineated exposition of the events in question. I remind them that this type of creative writing is like a body on the side of the road waiting for CPR. The person knows you’re there to give them a chance at life, so do your job. Just make them breathe and have faith that they will carry on the rest of the way on their own.
The next masterpiece can be found or heard anywhere. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan belong with Walt Whitman and William Blake. Writing is most alive when seen through different eyes, when it is taken out for a walk in a freshly pressed suit. The best writing teachers are those who can see the one beautiful flower in a garden of weeds. We will try to keep it alive, but if the weeds don’t die, we won’t put the flower on life support. We’ll leave knowing it wasn’t meant to stay with us. I don’t think that’s irresponsible. It’s just reality.
  I start each semester by telling students that writing can potentially save their lives. A passionate love note can mean more in a single moment than any Declaration of Independence, and that moment is worth saving. Keep all your cards, memos, thoughts of the day, tear-stained letters ending relationships or long missives trying to start love affairs. Reading them years later will bring back feelings of great joy, regret, longing, life itself. Be judicious and selective when it comes to e-mails you write and save. While a great letter can give your life great meaning, sometimes impulsive thoughts committed to paper are better off secured in a safe deposit box at your local bank. I tell them that the writing they have already done is a testament to survival, betrayal, complicity in the grand design of the human race keeping their collective head above water.
  Now, if I can only return to my original metaphor! Spark, wildfire, but now I’ve ended with everybody treading water. Hmmmm….Maybe we’re all just a burning oil slick, and writing is, well….It’s a work in progress, the 999th draft of the story of my life, a blog chronicling the minutiae of a 21st Century shut-in. The fire is life, the red/orange flame of my heart, and it will never be extinguished so long as I know how to write and embrace the commitment to bring that passion out in my students.

A Home In The World

My mother’s recent move into a retirement community took some adjustment on everybody’s part. She had been a widow for seven and a half years.  A  life in the big house where she raised her family was proving expensive. Her children were scattered, geographically and ideologically, in different stages of their own lives. The house where most of us grew up was drained of all the tangible things that represented something to those of us who were interested. As the doors to that house were closed, so too was that part of our lives.

            Hanging on to the sentimentality of a Norman Rockwell New England homestead serves no good purpose. This is easy to understand. We can’t go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house anymore because she can’t keep up with the Property Taxes and snow plow bills. The furnace is shot. The landscapers are unreliable, and the painters just broke your new storm window. It’s time to cut losses and head into the future with new surroundings.

The time comes for all of us when the home we knew for many years reverts to the condition it had always held; house. The nostalgic, Vaseline-smeared veil is wiped off the lens of our life story, and the home becomes the ultimate intangible. We go off in search of one in which to spend the rest of our lives, or we rationalize that the security of a home has been in our heart since the day we were born. Don’t get misty-eyed about crackling fires in the fireplace and marks on the door where you charted your children’s growth. It can vanish in an instant. What was once a determination to stay rooted forever in one house, make it a home, raise your kids and pass the dwelling down to your grandchildren is no longer cost efficient. Property values, gentrification, and the lure of hitting the road have made hanging on to the past the last resort of the foolish and unrealistic.

My parent’s generation knew how to plant roots and settle into a groove rather than compromise most of their principles for the next best thing.  I grew up in a town of big families and quaint houses. Our fathers went to work at General Electric or the blossoming software companies on Rte. 128 outside of Boston.  Our mothers turned these houses into homes. Our own generation either stayed within a convenient driving distance of the home where we grew up, or we went far away. The world we had inherited was too exciting and expensive for us to stay in one place.

The idea of buying a house had always been foreign to me. It remains one of those impossible goals I probably am not meant to achieve. A house means stability and some sort of foundation. Owning the place where you live means some sort of commitment towards a long-term thing. If you could not stick to diets, relationships, or dead-end jobs that were simply a means to an end, there was no way you could own a house. Anyway, teachers were forever meant to be tenants, always making good with the landlords so we can somehow get a break on next month’s rent. Friends from college went from one place to another, accumulating roommates and crazy times and hazy memories of crashing on one futon or another. We rambled, rolled on, moved to that next joint, swept the dust off our boot heels and never dared look back.

It can get frightening as the years and decades roll on and you have yet to settle down. Societal expectations steer you towards finding something you can define as family, and then buying a home. I pay a competitive rent, nothing included, for a two bedroom place near the city whose only assets are storage space and immediate public transportation access. Part-time work at several jobs has proven steady, but nothing is guaranteed. Am I scared? No. Am I worried? Of course. Mine is a stressful but manageable life, and I shouldn’t complain. Home is not where I am now, but where I’ll end up at the end of the road.

Cruel comments from unexpected places


I worked with mentally retarded and developmentally delayed clients in my early years as an educator. This was not what I had wanted, but it proved to be a great training for the challenges to come. There was a horribly depressing summer monitoring people at a sheltered workshop, and relief work at a group home on the North Shore , where we worked on hygiene, socialization, and basic coping skills.  I was a paraprofessional teacher’s aide, helping high school kids with remedial reading skills. I was also a Respite Care Provider, bringing them to movies, bowling, or miniature golf.

            This work soon became a dead-end for me. I just couldn’t see how I was helping.  I needed to maintain quality of life and dignity for these people, but I wanted to give them more. I wanted to see a spark in their eyes that told me they were getting the big picture, but it didn’t happen. This was obviously a selfish approach on my part. The relationship was not always about me and what I might get. They needed role models in dealing with the world at large, and this is what we offered. One way or another, we were their door to surviving outside of and beyond the constraints of any safety nets.

             I went on to work in non-profit organizations, at a school for Dyslexics, and finally found life as a college instructor. I never forgot the challenges exclusive to special education. If anything, the skills I learned and the attitude I developed when working there formed the foundation of what I know and do today. It helped me re-define the very notion of “special needs” and “retarded.” As a college English major, I liked the idea that I could so clearly isolate and define qualities to those words, I worked with people who literally needed to be led by the hand through their daily chores, people who had no concept of time or consequences to their actions. Years later, as an adjunct college English instructor, I would prove to have no problems with petulant college teens that had no idea how good their lives really were.

In my time with them, I realized that the special needs population deserved strong, determined, patient, and focused teachers who would not give up. They needed somebody willing to move a mountain of rice from one point to another, grain by grain, and thrill at every small victory. In one of those periodic conversations we all need to have with ourselves while standing at the crossroads of life and a career, I realized the person they needed wasn’t me. I moved on before I burned out and got bitter.

            There is a rider on one of my bus routes who reminds me of my old clients. Each time he gets on, he loudly says hello to everybody and proclaims that we’re all family. The driver is our Mom or Dad, and we’re all brothers and sisters. The rider is a balding, mild-looking man with glasses and a permanent smile on his face. Most of us take for granted that when he’s getting on, this is what we’ll hear. It’s his bus ride, and we are there to share his joy in the smallest things. One recent evening, a well-dressed frustrated elderly man threw him an insult that I hadn’t heard since high school:

            “Did your mother have any children who lived?”

            Cruelty is most effective when aimed at a target that can’t or won’t retaliate. Kick a dog when he’s down. Steal candy from a baby. Push a blind man into oncoming traffic. We act on our darkest, most vicious impulses because we choose not to know any better.  I looked at the older man after he hurled the insult, and I wish I had said something. This is one of the moments, like many of us, I will probably retrieve at a later date, I will re-play it and cast myself as a superhero who comes to the aid of the defenseless, I wish I could have set that older man straight, but it was impossible. I have learned a few things as a teacher: stupidity fades away, but ignorance is forever.

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