Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Incomplete Work of Fiction (3 of 3): Climax

We shift back to the present.

The mother is dead. Again, it’s not unexpected, but neither is it easy. Hardy is suddenly bereft of his core reason for getting up in the morning. Felix is feeling the guilt of not having done enough, and anger at how she died. Flashback briefly to that night, where the mother dies, and Electra can’t be reached. Someone calls the police, and an ambulance comes. Although the mother has expressed her desire not to be resuscitated to each of her children, it has never been written down. Without such an order in writing, the paramedics are obligated to try. This frustrates and angers Felix, and this anger will alter manifest against Electra.

But for now, we cut to one brief shining moment, as in the face of 9/11, the disparate factions of the family come together at the mother’s funeral. It is an amazing event, and inspiring in a real sense. But in the back of his mind, Felix can’t help but hear his mothers stated (and somewhat selfish) wish not to have a funeral.

And so that brief shining moment is extinguished as, the day after the funeral, Felix demands of Elecktra that she show him the will. Electra moves from stand-offish to belligerent, and delays revealing the will for almost a year. In that interim, there are scenes of anger, and terror, and screaming, and tears as Felix seems, at times, to go out of control. There is raw emotion on all sides, the likes of which can only be explored in fiction. There is one particular scene where Felix, now sole owner of the house, screams at Electra and calls her unpardonable names. His sanity comes into question at this point, as to whether he is merely manic depressive, or truly delusional. But what is unquestionable is that the dissolution has begun.

The conflict escalates. Felix throws Hardy out of the house, his home for the past decade, and isolates himself from the rest of the family. Not that this is hard to do, as the family appears to revel in a dysfunctional disjointedness that seems to increase daily.

The next inciting incident is the filing of the will, nearly a year after the mother’s death, which is followed almost immediately by Felix’s challenge to it, and to Electra’s serving as executrix. The scene is set in a courtroom, as Felix stands on one side and Electra on the other, before a Probate and Family Court judge who clearly could not give two shits about any of the back story, and can’t even clearly hear what issues are being laid before him. It’s an indictment of the system in a sense, and a cautionary tale, but also a family drama beginning to spin out of control. Here we juxtapose the cold, dry, and almost sterile environment of the courtroom proceedings with the tensions roiling just beneath the surface, frustration, and as slow seething that, if not yet hatred, is well along the path toward it.

Maybe we add poignance to this scene by juxtaposing it in time with a family barbecue of decades earlier; a series of snapshots from a family album, committed to memory, and colored by it. Both the father and the mother are alive, and the siblings talk happily and heartily, enjoying good music and laughing conversation and the closeness of strong familial bonds.

Cut to present, as Electra and Hardy are on one side of the courtroom. Felix sits two rows before them, having entered and not even glanced at them. The judge goes through other cases of dysfunctional families, divorce, custody, and angry, bitter opponents.

Cut to the past, as the father slips his hand around the mothers shoulder, both beaming for an impromptu snapshot, showing a tender closeness that is the core of the family unity. But which will not last.

Cut to the present, where Ovid sits on the opposite side, also alone, trying to make sense of how this has all come to this. This scene is somewhat surreal, and somewhat unclean, and leaves the reader with a sense that this entire world and every surface in the courtroom is in desperate need of a shower.

Cut to the past, as the siblings all group, standing, hands on paper plates heaped with comfort food as they lean back in laughter and bask in the warmth of a summer day that will pass in time, and never come again.

The scene ends with the judge giving Felix 30 days to outline his objections to the will, thereby moving the plot forward.

A week later, Ovid is playing phone tag, trying to get Felix to drop the challenge, or, failing that, to at least put into words what his goal is in this action, besides a futile attempt to punish Electra and Oscar. Felix can’t give one, and this fact is not lost in the circular logic Felix expounds to justify his actions. And Electra is no better. In a late night phone conversation, decades of anger spill over from Electra onto Ovid. She calls him self centered, tells him that he always removes himself from taking action, that he is so damned detached as to be almost uninvolved, But at this point, Ovid is no longer in a conciliatory mood, and is willing to strike back.

The situation turns confrontational through a series of phone calls. It becomes increasingly clear to Ovid that none of this is about the stated goals. This is about who is the boss, who the best arbiter and interpreter of the Mother’s last wishes, in spirit or in action. This becomes clear by how often Ovid has to ask the same simple questions: what would it take to resolve this? What is the simple thing you want? Accountability requested on one side, autonomy demanded on the other. The goals are incompatible, and create suspicion and mistrust.

So here is the crux of the climax; what does Ovid do?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An incomplete work of fiction (2 of 3): Complication

We fast-forward a few years to the household where the middle brother, (let’s call him Hardy) is the primary caregiver for the bed-ridden mother. Hardy has always seemed a bit lost—thrice divorced with five kids by the different women, and due to an incarceration for failure to pay child support after being laid off, unable to hold gainful employment without losing all his wages. Let’s make this situation sad, but serendipitous, as the act that saves the mother from having to go to a nursing home.

Let’s throw in a minor climax in this flashback, where all six siblings together agree that the house should be sold to one of their number, as a means of protecting the mothers assets should she ever be hospitalized, or forced to go into a home. The consensus is that the house go to Felix to take care of. The understanding would be that any of the siblings would have the right to buy the house from that brother for a reasonable rate—right of first refusal.

Then, let’s introduce the next twist to propel the plot. Let’s say that Felix, the lawyer, tries to get the mother to sign a power of attorney, giving the eldest authority. There’d be a lot of subtext about the eldest wanting this responsibility, but then also undertones of what the father had said about Felix before the father died. More layers, more uncertainty. Now, Felix does this while he lives far away, so leaves the papers with the mother, to address on his return.

Now, the next twist. On a visit to the mother, Oscar finds the papers and, suspicious, and more than a little angry, takes them. He has them changed, re-written so that Oscar gets the power of attorney, and mastery over all the mothers affairs. On his return, Felix is disconcerted, but does not challenge this change. Again, this is based on the mother’s stated wishes, not his own.

Okay, more back story. The eldest brother, Felix, is followed by the eldest sister (let’s call her Electra) and there is bad blood between them—the kind of bad blood that can only arise from strained familial bonds. Oscar bonds with Electra, and the same fell swoop that gives Oscar the power of attorney, makes Elektra the health proxy.

There’s an inherent conflict here amongst the key players Electra and Felix. They are the oldest male and the oldest female. As the eldest male, Felix took on the role of father to the family as a boy, when the father left the family for another relationship. When he later returned, the boy had functioned as father figure for too long to simply give the role up. Echo this with the role of Electra as the surrogate mother to the family, acting as caretaker for a mother forced to be away from home often, at work as a career woman, and sole support for the family. This is the root of their conflict, with the parents at the core. The key being that the parent’s created the problem, but never took the time or the responsibility to resolve it.

Now the stage is set for a replaying of that rivalry, surrogate father against surrogate mother, Hyper-paternalism against hyper-maternalism, both directing anger and aggression against the other, as they had seen the parents do in the latter years of their married lives.

Flash forward. Electra and Felix say they are doing this, assuming responsibility for their mothers affairs, for the mother’s sake and by her wishes, and that seems reasonable. The only problem is that the yare unwilling to provide any transparency. There is no accountability for the mother’s finances. They adopt a “my way or the highway” attitude. The mother has a monthly check for Social Security, a monthly check from her pension, and a monthly check from the father’s pension. The checks are automatically deposited into an account which the mother shares with Ovid (that is, which the mother put Ovid’s name onto). Because his name is on the account, Ovid has access to the account, but that access is limited to essentially checking on the balance regularly, and seeing the money transferred in, and the next day transferred out into a separate account maintained by Oscar. But Ovid has the ability at least to track how much money is going in. And he has a growing awareness that the money is not being spent on his mother’s care. The plot thickens. What to do?

The overwhelming undercurrent through this part of the story is the mother’s insistence that the siblings not fight. We can cap this and typify it with a heart felt one-on-one scene where Ovid tries to reach the mother, and tries to tell her that if she does not sort the affairs of her life and her children before she dies, these issues will never be sorted. It needs to read as poignant, and prophetic. Very prophetic, as it will be revealed.

At the end of the scene we see the core dilemma. With a single call to action, Ovid would galvanize to action, and be at the ready to demand accountability, and take care of the mother. But he wants—needs, really—her participation in at least the call to action. He needs her to say it is what she wants. And she will not, for the rest of her life.

And the stage is set, as we build to the climax.

To be continued.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An incomplete work of fiction (1 of 3)

I sit down to write a story.

I write because fiction is so much more interesting than life. More controllable. The twists and turns of a good, complicated tale of intrigue and emotion and right and wrong, and all the moral ambiguities in-between, that’s the stuff that makes our own lives seem so much better in comparison. Or, maybe, not as good. Maybe it’s that the hope of a happy ending colors our reality, and the hope in that mirror, that our own reality might reflect those joyful colors, as well as all the complexities.

So, let’s tell a story.

Let’s just say, as a case of fiction, that a man’s mother dies. Let’s call him Ovid. She’s died of old age, as close to a case of natural causes as that vague term allows, and after a long slow mental death by inches from the ravages of dementia. That’s the inciting incident of the story, I think. That’s the event not that starts the ball rolling, but that all of the other events lead up to and from.

Okay, first we need some framework. We’d need to set up that Ovid is from a large family—three brothers and two sisters, of which Ovid is the youngest. We’d need to establish that Ovid is in his mid 40’s, and that the oldest sibling (we’ll call him Felix), one of the brothers, is past retirement age at 64. So in a sense, the mother’s death was not unexpected. But the emotions at the mother’s death are real, and repercussive.

But we need still more back-story. Rolling back the clock, we’d need to set up how the father had died nearly ten years previous, and how one of the things that the father had done before cancer ravaged his otherwise vibrant and healthy form, as to criticize Felix, as “greedy” and self-serving. And let’s make Felix a lawyer, just for the sake a plot device. Foreshadow a conflict here between father and eldest son, which Ovid can only guess at, like someone walking into the middle of a movie. Some things have happened that all the other moviegoers know, and which is key to the plot direction, but which the latecomer has to piece together as he goes. It’s a hell of a way to build a psyche.

But this can be a powerful scene, in context. Ovid and the next youngest brother (let’s call him Oscar), had gone to the fathers ancestral home in Mississippi from the family’s home in New England, to take care of the father, who was battling cancer. It was a good time for Ovid to take a break, because he’d just been downsized from his job of ten years, and while he had some prospects, needed the break. And there is an unspoken pressure of Ovid’s own family—his wife pregnant with their first child—to provide for. Family, and providing for family, is a recurrent theme in the story.

But within these scenes come an important connection between Ovid and the father, and a resolution of things often unsaid in a life, needing to be said. It ends with closeness, and warmth, and good feeling. And it’s short-lived.

Ovid leaves the recovering father to start a new job several states away, leaving him in Oscar’s care, with the understanding that the second-oldest sister (let’s call her Minerva) will be coming two weeks later for her “turn.” But this turns out to be the last time Ovid sees his Father, as the Father dies less than two weeks later. Ovid never goes to the funeral. Funeral’s weren’t his thing. He’d always wonder if he made a mistake in that.

Next, lets’ just put in, for the sake of a new plot twist, that the week before the father died, Oscar, alone, made a trip to the father’s safe deposit box, and took the fathers will. And destroyed it. Out of character? Inexplicable? Time, and our story, will tell.

Top that off with Oscar taking sole ownership of the father’s property as a result of a new will that he’d somehow had possession of, created in the span of time between Ovid leaving and the death of the father. Now we have some interesting intrigue, wouldn’t you say? We’d have to wonder at the motivation, of course, and what Oscar hoped to gain. A noble act for the benefit of the siblings, ensuring the father’s legacy almost against his will? He does make a point of delivering what he says is a 1/6th share from the sale of the property to each sibling. But he makes that delivery behind the wheel of a brand new car. But maybe it’s just cynical and mistrustful for Ovid to note that. In any event, like so many doubts and concerns he will evince through the course of the story, Ovid pushes the thought away.

To be continued.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Page

The empty page is a baby. Selfish, a pleading void of need drawing you in, demanding, wanting. It cries at you. It calls to you. It screams, “See me, fill me, make of me something great! Know me, believe in me, use me to create!"

The empty page is angry and demanding. “Make a statement, it calls, “Make Love. Make War. Make a mess.” Crying and cooing, cajoling and pleading and whining for attention. The empty page is a pain in the ass. And it’s no wonder it’s so often left, alone.


The empty page is not my friend. It offers no warmth, no comfort or solace in its starkness. It does not beckon to me because, at the end of the day, it came into my grasp empty and is just as happy to pass on the same way, and billions if its brethren have in the past. It has no particular bond to me, no desire for me. It is not on my side.

But neither is it my enemy. It has nothing against me, when t has nothing for me. It is my mirror, my echo, as true or faithless a lover as I am to it.


If I commit, it is no longer an empty page—it is mine. The committed page is not empty. The committed page is a coach calling out to me; “Go, go, go, give one for the team, provide, extrapolate, build!” It’s anxious for me to take the field, to commit with the fullness of my attention and passion and belief. It wants me ready to get battered and bloody, and fall flat on my face again, and again, an exercise in toughening skills and building abilities. It wants me to fail as a path to future success. Or so I believe.

So I choose to believe.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Walking Down the Road on a Snowy Evening
Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Movie of Your Life: A Hollywood Curse

In the initial stages, the short, exciting, but tragic (for all true stories are tragedies) story of your life, is planned as a movie.

The agent promises that you will be played by a Beautiful Person in the Movie of Your Life. As a result, no one will understand why someone who looks that good had such a difficult time of it, instead of simply counting blessings. As a result, you fear the story will play out as surreal, disingenuous, and unbelievable. So in that way, it will be reflective of your reality. So you let it pass.

The soundtrack will be hip, likely featuring songs that are not to your taste, by artists you’ve never heard of and who will not acknowledge you at the movies premiere. And in that way the music will reflect alienation and outsided-ness on multiple levels, and thereby, to you, emphasize the themes of the storyline of your life. Of course, no one else will notice this, and the soundtrack will seem entirely appropriate to them. It will hit the top ten within a week of the films release, go double platinum, and be remembered for itself, not for its place in the Movie of Your Life.

After the project is green-lighted, and after the first script rewrites, it becomes painfully obvious that the story will not be a major blockbuster. Scrapped early on is the idea that there will be multiple parts to this screen story, like a Lord of the Rings Saga, or even Planet of the Apes. The project is whittled down. The idea is floated that, perhaps, the story might be better suited for a music video, or a subplot for an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. But regardless of all of this, the Movie of Your Life will proceed.

When we get to the ending of the Movie of Your Life, everyone will predict that they saw it coming. No surprising Keyser Söze-out-of-a-hat here, no M.Knight Shyamalan twist. And you will wonder why, when everyone else could see the foreshadowing, that it so completely escaped you at the time.

Eventually the Movie of Your Life will move to DVD. While it’s largely ignored at first, it does, after a time, develop a small but loyal fan base, and an underground cult status.But it never makes a lot of money, or receive critical acclaim in the Director’s lifetime. Eventually, one day after it falls into the Public Domain, the story of your life will be slickly repackaged with impressive Bonus Features such as interviews with people who knew people, who knew people, who actually knew you. Of course, this will be many years after your death. Therefore most people will assume the Movie of Your Life to be a fiction.

The Movie of Your Life will then be transcribed onto a new generation Virtual Reality Viewing machine that will allow the VR user to experience being you. He will smell what your car smelled like, and taste what you had for breakfast. She will feel the place you first scratch when you wake up in the morning. Hundreds of thousands of people will pay for the opportunity to experience a day in your life.

And still no one will know how it feels to be you.

Roll credits.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Short attention span meets something to say

Okay, as I hoped, my getting into the habit of posting has started me back into the writing habit again. So I'm interrupting my (boring, narcissistic, pointless) list of favorite poems to start posting for real. Starting tomorrow.

You Remain
Arthur Symons

As a perfume doth remain
In the folds where it hath lain,
So the thought of you, remaining
Deeply folded in my brain,
Will not leave me; all things leave me;
You remain.

Other thoughts may come and go
Other moments I may know,
That shall waft me, in their going
As a breath blown to and fro;
Fragrant memories, fragrant memories
Come and Go.

Only thoughts of you remain
In my heart where they have lain-
Perfumed thoughts of you, remaining
A hid sweetness, in my brain.
Others leave me; all things leave me;
You remain.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers
Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

And because I've posted this one before, here's another I love by her. Still counts as one, though.

Not In Vain

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

How do I love thee? (Sonnet 43)
Elisabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Some of my favorite poems, in no particular order.

This week, again in lieu of actually writing anything of consequence, I'll post some of my favorite poems, in no particular order.

These are my favorites because they come out of one of the several books of collected poetry that I've read since high school, and these ones have seemed appropriate to me at the time I first found them, so that they stuck with me. And the glue still holds.

When You Are Old
William Butler Yeats

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Everybody and their sister has seen this video...

...but I can't go a month without seeing it. It never stops being funny. Guess that speaks to where my head is at.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Silence, explained.

It had been over a month that I didn’t blog, and people were starting to ask me about it. The fact was that I was just overworked and overstressed. I’d fallen into a groove of getting into work early, and staying late, and through that entire process feeling that, despite the fact that I was working nearly every moment of the day and often multi-tasking several project at once, I still could not catch up, let aloe get ahead. That feeling left me exhausted in the evenings, and therefore left no creative energy for blogging, or writing, or drawing, or updating my website.

Well, now summer is over, as my kids have been lamenting, and we blew out the end of summer with a week-long camping trip to Cape Cod, at Nickerson State Park. I’ve returned rejuvenated, energized, and ready to tackle life head on. Most importantly, I’ve returned with a dedication to take time to make time. Work will take as much as you give it, and not necessarily pay a subsequent return. My mind flashes back to the old saying that no one ever expects to see on a gravestone “I wish I’d spent more time at work.”

Not sure what I’ll have wished I spent more time doing. But I’m determined to find out.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My Last Airline Rant for the Year. I think.

Okay, as you can tell from these last few posts (rants) I am a not best buddy of the airlines right now. Or maybe it’s the FAA. Either way, they’ve clearly taken all the joy out of traveling. It’s almost (almost) easier to take a train, if trains weren’t more expensive and just as prone to delays (I’ll go into my train stories some other day).

Now, I used to love flying. I couldn’t wait for my next trip. I had all my frequent flier accounts in a special little wallet with my passport, and held my airline tickets like they were gold, before my trip. Now all I have is short list of things that really annoy me about airline flights, these days.

1) Delays. It’s not like they haven’t been doing this scheduling thing for several dozen years. And I’m not talking about delays due to weather. I’m talking about delays from poor planning, bad maintenance, and just shoddy customer service. But ‘nuff sad on that.

2) The rule to turn off electronic devices. The language from an in-flight magazine reads thus:

Devices such as electronic games, personal computers, and entertainment players and recorders (audio and /or video, such as iPod®/tape/CD/Minidisc/MP3/DVD players and camcorders) must be used with headsets at all times. These devices, as well as noise-canceling headphones, calculators, shavers, cameras. GPS devices, and aircraft power ports for laptops, may be used only at the gate when the main cabin door is open, or when announced by flight attendants and the aircraft is above 10,000 feet in altitude. These devices must be turned off during taxi, takeoff and landing.

Okay, for safety reasons, you should turn off your laptop and stow it. Likewise, I don’t know enough about phone service, and so could allow that some signals could interfere with the pilot’s ability to communicate with the tower. But why would you have to shut off your thumb-sized iPod shuffle that’s stuffed into a pocket on takeoff? Is there some miraculous new technology that grants the tiny MP3 player electronic control of the plane through the click wheel? I think not. It’s an example of a blanket rule that small minds adhere to, rather than actually creating a device that ensures the devices will not interfere with takeoff. Or that a slow-moving FAA megolithic system of rules that finds it easier to issue a blanket ruling than be real, and create real standards that make things easier for customers.

3) The beverage misers.
What’s the deal with needing to stretch one can of soda over three passengers? Why do the stewardesses sometimes give the can with the cup, and sometimes stingily fill the cup with mostly ice to give you barely anything to drink? And on the occasion I feel I want more, if feel like I’m putting the flight attendant out if I ask them to leave the can—like that’s somehow greedy and selfish.

I recently observed a way around this that makes everyone feel better. Request the can only. Accompanied by the self-effacing line “I’m a man of simple needs,” your request for the can only (no cup, no ice) is translated from greed to caring simplicity, a desire not to put anyone to any trouble, and a concern for the environment. I use that like every change I get, now, when I order my in-flight regulars, either apple Juice of tomato Juice, my own struggle to get healthy fruits and veggies in my travel diet. And avoid the devil corn syrup. Best of all, warm apple juice is like tea, and warm tomato juice like soup. Yum.

4) The disconnection of technology. Check-in kiosks that take the place of live attendants, and which all passengers are summarily funneled toward, are not updated with the latest info on flight status. This just seems sloppy to me. If the check-in database can connect to know you are on this or that flight, and your confirmation is this, and another system is aware of the status of the flight in terms of delays, why don’t the systems talk to one another? I believe the answer is because to do so would only directly benefit the customer, not the corporation. Therefore, not a priority. Likewise, the message boards at gates are not updated. I spent half an hour with another family and another lone traveler in Cleveland, OH, waiting for the connection to Boston. It was only 20 minutes before the plane was supposed to leave that I realized there was no plane, and no update on the board above the gate desk, and no attendant. A quick check of the main boar, located quite a ways away, that the gate had been changed from the boarding pass I had been given just two hours ago, at check-in in Austin. No one had been sent to check the gate, and there was no other warning. And if I had missed the flight, how much do you want to bet that would have been my tough luck, and not the fault of the airline?

Look, I realize that airlines are hurting. But where is the underlying logic of customer service that is the cornerstone of any good business plan? Every in flight magazine and pre-flight video goes on about how happy they are to serve, and how grateful the airline is for choosing them. But that is proven to be transparent lip service as long as the actual services are so sub-standard, I can’t be the only one noticing. This lack of actual service is creating a perpetual cycle—people don’t feel like air travel is special or convenient, yet it continues to cost more; they stop flying which hurts the airlines and causes higher prices; those still forced to air travel are treated worse, while paying more, and so fly less, and so on. The slippery slope is just getting steeper.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fear and Flying (Three of three)

I was a little surprised that a system that marks every bag with a bar code, much the same as UPS or Fed Ex does, didn’t provide a subroutine by which the lost baggage lady could punch some keys and tell me where the hell my bag was. But then, I was also surprised that this woman’s hair had survived its time travel from 1978. After what I’d gone through the past several hours getting to Texas, there should’ve been little to surprise me. But it was late.

I supposed that this leg of the journey of air travel—solving the unique core issue of how to help a passenger locate lost luggage—was yet another low priority for the airline. Because I know it is possible. But maybe I assume too much. Maybe I was the first person to have this experience, that somehow my karma was disrupted that day. But a quick glance outside the door of the lost luggage office at row after row of bags, unclaimed, unaccompanied, and (despite the looping announcement over the loudspeaker) apparently not on their way to be destroyed, said otherwise. The lady, as kind as she was, and as much technology as her airline seemed to have at its disposal, was not going to be able to help me. I was tired, and if my bag wasn’t going to come in the next six hours (which she said it wouldn’t, as mine was the last flight until morning) I might as well get to my hotel and get some rest.

Half an hour and $40 to a cabbie later, I’m at the hotel. Still exhausted but still thinking ahead, I washed the clothes I was wearing, the only clothes I now have, in the sink, and hung them over the hotel room heater to dry overnight. The lobby offered toothbrushes and toothpaste and combs, all for sale. I wonder in passing whatever happened to the HoJo promise to provide that material for free to the weary traveler who “forgot something?” Then I remembered I’m staying at a more expensive, more upscale hotel than HoJo. So of course, given modern logic, at the more expensive hotel, nothing is free.

The next morning, my clothes were still damp, but a quick iron later and they were wearable. And I’m on time, and on mission for my day.

At noon, a call to the airport revealed that the bag had been located—they could deliver it to my hotel, or I could zip down to the airport and pick it up. For the latter solution, all I needed was an hour round trip, and another hundred bucks, to make up for the mistake that the airline made in the first place. Obviously, I opted for delivery. I hoped for delivery before 6, so I could run back to the hotel, shower and change into something I hadn’t been wearing for 24 hours. After calling and calling and calling again, I had the delivery time moved back and back. I finally called the hotel, and gave them my cell number, with a request that they call me if/when my bag was dropped off. I called them at 5:30, to determine whether I should go back to the hotel or not, reiterating my request that they call me if my bag came in. And they agreed. And I asked if they still had my number, to which they replied that they instead had my bag. Like it was some kind of game. It had been sitting there for an hour. Thanks for letting me know.

Needless to say, I carried-on, on my way home.

Which brings me to my most recent trip, where I wrote this past series of blogs. On this trip, I was all set to avoid my past mistakes. I had found my license, and held onto it for dear life. I carried my bag on. Then I made a mistake.

I arrived at the airport early, again—at 4:00 pm for a 6:00 pm flight that would get me in at 11:30 pm. At the check-in kiosk I registered for my flight to Austin, through a Houston connection. The computer gave me good news, in the form of a flight that would leave earlier, and get me there an hour earlier! Great! Win-Win! (There’s one born every minute, but apparently my birth stretched over three or four.) I clicked okay. Will I never learn?

I found out at the gate that my new, earlier flight was going through Newark, NJ. The flight coming in was also from Newark, and was delayed. Further, from the cheerfully helpful gate attendant, I learned all the flights to and from Newark had been delayed all day. It was just that no one bothered to inform the little hamster than ran the electronic kiosk. But, the gate person assured me, my original flight would also be a bit late, so it all evens out. But she put me onto an earlier flight to Newark that would, somehow, get me to Austin…at the same time as my original flight. Big whoop. But, no harm, no foul, right?

Except, in Newark, the flight to Austin was delayed another 2 hours. A little voice had told me that all flights from Newark had been delayed all day, but it didn’t register, as it should have, as a continuing problem that I needed to take into account. I ended getting to Austin two hours after my original flight would have gotten me in, and I got into my hotel at 2:30 in the morning. Really left me refreshed for my 9am meeting, and all-day brainstorming session.

Anyway, next time I will be older and wiser, and do all things right. Most importantly, I will be aware that the airlines are really out to get me. Sometimes, paranoia serves.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fear and Flying (Two of three)

So I made it to Boston’s Logan airport on time and on mission, ready to be patient. I mean it was my own stupid fault I didn’t have my license. So I would have to patiently explain how the expired passport that I had as a backup was valid, and hope I could make it through before y flight gave up on me.

The first hurdle was Delta, where I had to convince the counter person that it was a valid ID. She checked with someone, who told her it was not. I shook my head, and continued with my “is so” mentality, forcing the second person to check with someone who actually knew the answer to the question before answering it. You cannot use an expired passport to travel internationally (duh) but, yes, you can use it as proof of identity for traveling domestically. I successfully checked my bag, and moved on.

At the gate (where I again had to show my expired passport, and again explain that it was okay, and again wait while that was verified by someone whose job it should have been to know that already) the extra security meant going into a special booth, having a wand run all over me. Then I had to have my shoes checked in a special device for…I don’t know…special odors? Anyway, it didn’t take two hours. It didn’t even take a half hour. I got to my flight two hours early, and waited an hour for the flight to arrive. At which time I watched the ticket agent at the gate change the time to 2 hours later. With a gasp, I inquired, and found that the flight was delayed. Therefore I would miss the connection in Cleveland, and would not get to Texas that night. I was screwed.

But the helpful ticket agent came to my rescue. Either that or revealed the next link in their diabolical plan. He could get me on a flight on American, and there I could connect through Houston to get to Austin, and get there about the same time. That was the good news. The bad news was that American was in another terminal. Those meant I had to leave the terminal I was in, exit security, and then go back through security at the American terminal, with an expired passport, and accompanying “special procedures.” In less than a half hour. I thought fast, and agreed, after checking that my checked luggage (why oh why had I checked my luggage?) would likewise make the transfer. I was assured it would, and I took off running. I'm big, but I can be fast.

Airports are made for people in a hurry. Moving walkways are centered in long hallways, letting you move twice, three times as fast through their lengths, an answer to a prayer for the perpetually temporally challenged. The problem is that most of the people who take advantage of this are using the walkways as amusement park rides. They step onto the belt, and immediately stop, like it's an escalator, or a very tame roller coaster. All that's missing is their throwing theiR hands up and shouting "Wheeeee!" They're riding, without the slightest inkling that they're on a walkway. Worse, there are clearly marked signs designed for these people specifically, indicating that if they want to play statues, to keep to the right. People with somewhere to be are passing on the left. Maybe it would be clearer if they drew cobwebs on the info graphics. That day, I had no time to figure it out.

Through the terminal, to the next terminal through the line where I needed to verify a new ticket. Then off to security, where I played the “yes it is, no it isn’t, yes it is” game again, and it was every bit as much fun as the several times. And I made it to the gate on time. In time, that is, to see the ticket agent change the time, telling me that this flight also, was delayed. By now I was thirsty, and wishing I had the water that was in my checked luggage. I settled for the fountain, container-free, and you can’t beat the price. Luckily, the connection in Houston was such that it could allow for a delay, so I was still in good shape.

Long story long, I made it to Austin, and only an hour after I should have been there in the first place, at 12:30. Drama ended? No, not yet. The real drama was waiting at the baggage carousel. There, all the other bags were cleared out one by one by my anxious, exhausted fellow travelers on the last flight into Austin Bergstrom that evening, and continued to their destination. All but mine. As the carousel stopped, a fresh surge of anxiety struck as I realized that my bag was nowhere to be seen.

There’re few things as much fun as waiting to get the attention of the person at the desk in the lost luggage office at 1 in the morning in a city far from home. It was then, as I was forced to listen to her (aware that I was standing there and was the only one standing there) as she proceeded to finish a story on the phone to her girlfriend about something that had happened that day, using me as a live audience for reaction. I was too tired and baffled by that point to be anything but angry. But I was still coherent enough to realize this annoying woman was my only hope of getting my bag that night, so that I could have clean clothes for my meeting at 9 the next morning.

It was then that she killed me.

Oh no, wait, I must have dozed for a second. It was then that she asked me if I was sure my baggage had come in. I wanted to say, “well, beyond following herd of everyone else off of my flight to a baggage carousel, and then watching as they all picked up their luggage and exited, and watching the belt subsequently, I couldn’t say for sure.” But I just said “yes.” She gave me a book that identified types of bags, and asked me to look it over to give her an identifying number, so they could identify the bag if it came in. If. The bag itself would have identifying tags, would it not? Because it was disheartening to think that it could stay lost for no other reason than that I identified "basic black wheeled type D1" instead of "basic black wheeled type L7".

It was then I knew it must be a plot. No other professional industry could be as hopelessly screwed up and yet charge such exorbitant prices at the same time, and not be up to some nefarious purpose. I was becoming sure. But I still needed the proof.

Within 24 hours, I would have it.

To be continued.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Fear and Flying (One of Three)

It could be bad luck. It could be poor planning. It could be fear of flying. Or it could be that the airlines are trying to kill me.

Okay, that’s extreme. It could more likely be that America’s airline industry, the economic whipping boys since 9/11 and silent victim of increased security and rising gasoline prices, have begun a slow descent into self-destruction. And it could be that I’m just witnessing it, and maybe one of the few speaking up about it. But there’s something about it that feels vaguely personal.

I’ve always liked traveling light, especially on airlines. I’d mastered the art of fitting everything into one carry-on bag. But that was before the plot to smuggle bomb-making chemicals aboard an airplane that resulted in the rule change that forbade passengers from carrying liquid onto a plane. I flew just a month after that. I brought my water, and my carry-on with more water in it. I had to dump the water I was carrying, first, then the water in my carry on. Then I bought a bottle of water beyond the checkpoint, paying $2.50 for the privilege of a 20¢ bottle of water, in a captive area. I especially dehydrate during flights, and that day I had a cold also, and was dreading the flying. My real dread came when I was informed that I had to toss the water I’d just bought, just bought, inside the airport, beyond the security gate, just outside the boarding area, before I got on the plane. This was when I first became the first of the series of outrageous rules, which the government and the FAA created to protect the flying public, and to slowly, incrementally, kill me. I mean, do they believe that small shop inside the security area had somehow smuggled dangerous chemicals into their stock, just waiting for some clever terrorist criminal to purchase it and bring it on board? If so, I should take it as a compliment to their perception of my mastery and evil genius. But if not, I could perceive it as a plot. After all, would it have killed them, or the vendor, to let me know that if I bought water, I’d need to finish it before boarding? Shouldn’t there be a discount on a bottle you only drink halfway? No, no organized system could be that devious, or that inept. It has to be a plot.

I have to do a certain amount of flying for my job, to connect with a sister office in Austin,TX. But the trips are often very fast—two or three days at most. Despite this fact, I realized that the days of carrying all in a carry on may be past me, in this new era. So, on my first trip to Texas about 2 months ago, I checked my carry-on. It was a small bag, and one that I could have carried it on, but I was unfamiliar with the exact rules of what I could carry on, so I felt better safe than sorry. I was ready to leave 3 hours early, to be at the airport the requisite (and troubling) 2 hours early. That’s when I realized I couldn’t find my drivers license. This was troubling because I knew I’d need it to get through security, which made me realize for the first time how crippling the lack of a license, and the lack of a car, would be to an individual. If you had no car, you’d need no license. But if you had no license, you could never fly anywhere. Do not pass go. I was stuck.

Then I remembered that I had an old passport. It was old-actually almost five years expired. I carried it because I used it as a second form of ID at my new job, to prove that I was a US citizen. And I kept it, as I meant to get it renewed, and never quite got around to it. But would it get me on a plane? I checked the website, and found out that yes, you could indeed board a plane using an expired passport for ID. But it would mean an additional level of security. But I needed to go, and so I hoped that 2-and-a-half-hours would be enough extra time.

Hope is a silly thing, sometimes—the last resort of the unprepared.

To be continued.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Formational Event #17

This seems like a dream, but it happened. I don’t really know how or why, but it happened.

I’m seventeen, and I’m applying for colleges. There’s the Philadelphia College of Art, my first choice, and Pratt Institute, my second, and School of Visual Arts and Cooper Union, these last three all in New York City. And it’s coming down to financial aid, because I clearly get the idea that my parents cannot afford to send me to college. Whichever is the least, and offers the best package, is the one I will go with. PCA is my first choice because I went there during my junior year of high school for a pre-college program, which is where I fell in love with art school. And I’m hoping, hoping, hoping for a scholarship, because that would just make so much, so much easier. But I’m late out of the gate, and the scholarship has an essay requirement, and the deadline is two days away. I don’t remember how I got so far behind the gun, and in retrospect it feels like one of those dreams where you walk into a room without pants-—you don’t know exactly how you got there, and at the moment that seems the least of your worries. The action element is to get some damn pants.

So the action element is to write the essay. My father and I get in his truck, and drive to Philly. I bring my lined paper and start writing the essay in the car. Scribbling, really. I know the paper needs to be something highly conceptual, something that will knock their socks off and get them to cough up the dough for a scholarship. But, though I’m interested in writing from a young age, I’m not really good at it.

The paper isn’t done. So My father, who needs to be back at work the next day, gives me money for a train ticket back to Springfield, and gets me a hotel room downtown overnight. The plan is that I will write into the wee hours—all night if necessary—and complete the essay neatly and completely to deliver to the admissions office the next morning. I know downtown Philly from y pre-college experience, and know how to walk to the school, and to the train station. My dad trusts me, and cautions me, ad I know how to take care of myself, and for crissake at 17 I’m almost an adult. So, though I have no clothes for an overnight stay, I’m staying.

The room s small, an inner city special with a bed and a small bath, and a writing desk, which is where I concern myself. I’m writing into the night, when I realize I didn’t have dinner. After the third draft—one of the drafts being a simple clean copy-over of the hand written essay from my initial scribbles—seems a good opportunity to take a walk and find what food is available in the city at midnight.

The first thing I realize is how different a city can look, at street level, after dark. I’d never been out in a city in the wee hours by myself, only with friends, coming back from something or going to something. But here, ‘m totally on my own. Which is why, maybe, it doesn’t strike me as strange when the woman in a short skirt asks me if I want a date.

“Excuse me?”

“Do you want a date?”She repeats a bit more slowly, like I’m hard of hearing.

Am I that naive? Maybe not, but from the vantage of the present day I can’t recall immediately realizing that she was a prostitute, asking me if I wanted to hire her. I mean, I had the hunger in my head, and was puzzling over what I had written in my head, thinking of better ways to say something, searching for stronger hooks. So it’s not hard to picture myself puzzling over her words for a split second before realization hits. And I walk on, with a “Uh, no. No, thanks.”

For some reason, this reaction makes her laugh, and it’s that laugh that makes me nervous. In that laugh is a high-angle panorama shot of me standing on a street where I do not belong, in a situation I was not prepared for, telling me I donlt know what I’m doing or where I’m going, and that I am far, far out of my freaking element. That laugh highlights the gap between being alone, and being a target somewhere you don’t belong, which are two separate neighborhoods, in completely different galaxies. Suddenly, I was aware of having all the money I had in my pocket—the money I needed to get a train the next day. Suddenly I contemplated how long it would be if I was lost or hurt in this city, and how long it would be before anyone realized it. Suddenly, I needed to be back in the safety of that small room,

I rode back on the train the next afternoon, after dropping off the essay that would not get me a scholarship, and would therefore firmly establish my career starting at Pratt Institute. And maybe it’s that train ride then that’s reminding me all of that now, as I write this, on a train to New York City, on a trip for work.

Because here, now, as often in my life, I am alone, a stranger going into a strange land. But I’m a large black man, and I have confidence in my ability to take care of myself. I know that does not make me invulnerable, and a bullet can kill a man of any size. And these days I seldom feel more that a few fleeting seconds of the vulnerability that tried to take hold of me that night in Philly; uncertainty, mixed with a sense of weakness and unnamable dread. But it does occur to me, from time to time. I’ll be in a hotel for just one night. It’s the least expensive hotel I could find, in Brookyn, and just before I left I read some online reviews that were mixed. One actually said it was “in the heart of the ghetto.” (I mean, who uses the word “ghetto anymore?). And I’ll likely use that night to write, and contemplate being where I am, and being alive. And still, sometimes, alone.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Mission of Hope

The boilerplate text from the Relay for Life is input ahead of time, to make it easier for people to create a web presence. It reads:

My Reason to Relay is to join people around the world in celebrating those who have survived cancer, remembering the people we've lost, and supporting the lifesaving mission of the American Cancer Society.
Please make a donation to me or join my team. You are helping deliver the hope that future generations will not have to endure cancer threatening the lives of their friends and family. You have the power to fight back against a disease that affects millions.

And I could just copy and paste that and be done with it, but my reasons are not boilerplate.

My father was a dreamer who wanted great things. He came out of rural Mississippi, and traveled to another continent during World War II where he met my Mom. That alone should be a testament to wonder, that a rural farmer from Mississippi, drafted and raised to the non-com rank of Sergeant, should meet a refined, educated and professional nurse from the North, and fall in love, and have that love, impossibly, returned. The love story doesn’t read as lovely after that. It ended with my father returning to his rural roots in Mississippi after I graduated college, to farm his ancestral land, where he would die. My Mom remained in Massachusetts, in the home where she raised their six kids, and where she would die. But for a few visits back and forth, and some last time together, which included attending my wedding, they lived apart, but never divorced. They shared a bond that was not quite marriage, yet something beyond it as well.

He died in Mississippi, in the double wide he purchased and set up himself. He wanted to leave it to his kids as a vacation property, expecting that we would have some kind of tie to the land his father and father’s father had walked, but which he had never instilled a love for, in his children. We were strangers to that land. My brother sold the property after his death. But that’s another story.

My father died of cancer. He died after a long battle (is there ever a battle like that which doesn’t seem long?). He went from a robust, strong, slightly overweight man to one on whom the skin hung, and in whose face only the grim determination of his eyes remained.

I walk in memory of him, because there was nothing I could do for him, yet all I do is because of him. I walk because my mother’s mother also died of cancer, leaving my mother as the adult woman of the house before she was even out of high school. I walk because both my wife’s grandmothers were taken by cancer, a fact that still chills my children to this day, and causes them to utter the word only with some trepidation. And I walk for myself, because I still can, and because I harbor the subtle suspiscion that it will likely find me as well, one day, despite my best efforts to hide from it behind exercise and healthy eating. It’s a grim, constant hunter that's easiest to fight against before it finds you, because there is no real way to hide. Only different ways to fight.

I walk for the hundreds out there who cannot walk because they are in the middle of that fight, and for the thousands lost to it, and the hundreds of thousands who have emerged from the other side, survivors, ever changed by the battle. Them I walk for, and will walk with on the weekend of June 6-7th on the Franklin County Fairgrounds. And I walk for my Dad, because we never had that last long walk together. He had to make that trek alone. But I never take my eyes off his footsteps.

My team is the Mission of Hope, sponsored by the UCC of Conway, and I invite you to walk with us by sponsoring us through the Relay for Life website, using this link.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

My weak.

Earliest I’ve been up this week: 4 am on Monday to drive into Boston, my regular 2 hour commute. I leave at 5. The wind was with me-I made it in at 7. I laid down in the car in the parking lot and slept until 7:30, before going in.

Wierdest thing I’ve seen this week:
An image from a Burger King commercial, with the guy in the big Burger King head and costume looking at this guy whose back is to the camera. He looks like he’s towering over him. The words superimposed on the screen: “Where is your God now?”

Most miles traveled in 24 hours this week: Western Mass to Boston on Monday. Boston to Western Mass on Wednesday, to see my two boys in their school play. Western Mass to Boston on Thursday, today.

First epiphany of the week: I will likely die in my car, from exhaustion.

Smartest thing I’ve done this week: Cancelling a business trip to NYC that I was ill prepared for, and would’ve taken me out of the office, during this strange crunch time.

Second epiphany of the week:
I don’t like crunch times.

Top accomplishment of the week: Apply for several scholarships, bringing myself one step closer to my enrollment at Savannah College of Art and Design, to finally begin my Masters. That, and hug my kids.

Strange realization of the week:
One of the ways I’m known at work is as “the salad guy” because I have a big salad for lunch almost every day. I do it because salad fills me up, and is low cal, and since I stay chained to my chair most of the day, I need low cal. At least until it gets warm enough to start taking walks and exercising again.

This weeks reason I am glad I don’t watch cable TV: I just watched the Flavor of Love podcast on iTunes, which gives you 20 minute versions of all the shows. I am amazed and appalled that this show could last 3 seasons, that this many women could be interested in this guy, and most of all, that any of them cry at being kicked off the show, and not becoming his third-season girlfriend. It’s like a train wreck that cars keep driving into. You just want to yell at them.

Second best accomplishment of the week:
Getting my taxes done and e-filed the day before the deadline.

Thing I’m most looking forward to this weekend:
Going to Comic Con in NY, with my oldest son. After another long car ride.

Thing I’m most embarrassed about this week:
Getting my taxes done and e-filed only one day before the deadline. I’m usually spending the money by late February.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hotel California

I miss the days when dreams were just dreams, not windows into the psyche, or a replaying of the days events. I miss having dreams that were a form of magic and fantasy, rolled into one.

When I was a kid, I slept with the radio on, back before I was such a light sleeper, needing absolute silence. And I dreamed an entire movie to “Hotel California.” It was me and my friend (I was the sidekick, not the main character) riding our motorcycles and stopping at this hotel. It was odd, and dark, and seemed deserted, but it was about to rain, and we were tired. So we went in. It was deserted, but clearly an old hotel-like the tower of Terror ride at Disney World, although this was before I’d been. There was a plot and a subplot as I wandered off and found out the truth about the hotel, and he went off separately where he met and fell in love with this girl. The girl ended up being chained in the basement, and he was bound to free her as the building started coming down around us. I struggled with him, and had to fight him to get him out, because he wouldn’t believe what I had found out-that the girl was part of the hotel, the lure in a venus flytrap to get you into the bowels of the hotel, from which you would never leave. You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. We rode away on our cycles as the house shook and convulsed and exploded on a bleak horizon behind us. A full story, in the space of that single song.

I know it’s dangerous to tell your dreams to others, especially those who know you. They know how to read the symbolism that you are blind to, and thereby fold back the banana peel, exposing your soul to light and spoilage. But I miss those kinds of dreams, and much prefer them to the ones I won’t speak of, now. I miss those days of dreams with a beginning, middle and an end; simple story arcs, excitement, and drama that was real. I like that much more real than the subtle drama that life seems, sometimes.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

Today, I felt great. For a time, I had all the ducks in a row, all the stars aligned. There was hope in my heart, light at the end of the tunnel. And I don’t know why, because nothing was different.

Tonight, I went out with a friend for dinner, whom I had not seen since my mother’s death. He was sorry that he had not gone to the funeral. We spoke of many things, of ships and sails and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. Of death and family and obligation, and how easily all our miniscule problems would be solved by the gift of a million dollars. Or two. Or maybe not.

And I felt like shit. My personal roller coaster was going down, and I hadn’t even noticed until he highlighted it. He mentioned that I was lower energy than he had seen me for some time. It was like the acknowledgement made it so, and despite the fact that I felt great earlier, I felt lousy. And I don’t know why, because nothing was different.

Or maybe it's that everything is different, so many times a day, so many times a week, that I don't notice it anymore.

I once read that the definition of insanity was taking the same action again and again, and expecting a different result. But an opposite allegory is the definition of frustration; taking the same action and expecting the same result, and having it be different every time. And not knowing why.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Big T's Triumph (Part 2 of 2)

I'm back in the office, back at work, back into the chaos that passes for life, these days. And in the aftermath of my Mom's funeral, it occurs to me that I never posted the text of Big T’s speech, which I promised a while ago. It's especially poignant in the face of how much a support he's been for me through the funeral of his Grandma. A 10-year-old shouldn't have to hold up as emotional support for a parent. But I was glad he was there.

The only change I’ve made is to take out his brother’s name:
A couple of Fridays ago, (Lil’ T) was sad because he lost something. He thought he was bad and that he could not do anything right. He sat down on the floor and started wailing how he was the worst person in the world and how nothing could make what he did forgivable.

I felt like I should do something. His crying made me feel sad, as well. So I told him how God could not push us away from him. God would always forgive our actions and sins. We sometimes forget that the meaning of the word sin is to push ourselves farther from God. But Jesus Christ gave us forgiveness of our sins and brought us closer to God. I told Trace that God did not make us perfect so that we could have pride in our achievements. If we were perfect then we would achieve nothing. But by learning from our mistakes, we can become better people.

When they think of God, many people think of humans or animals, but I think of a tree. Trees can live for thousands of years and are, in many ways, superior to humans. Humans depend on trees for shelter, paper, furniture, and in some cases, fruits. I have heard of trees over 900 years old, but not a human over 150 years old! From one seed can grow a forest. God is the seed who grew us, his children, his forest.
Imagine a cup. If one piece breaks off, then the rest of the cup may still be usable, but it is not as good as it was before. We are each a piece. Will we join our hands and be one? Or will we separate and leave one another alone in the darkness? If we support each other, we can hold more.

I believe that God does not control our actions physically, but does mentally. We have His voice in our heads, whenever we do something wrong. Our conscience tells us what we are doing wrong and what we can do to fix it. You can choose to listen to it or not listen to it. If we listen to it then we will feel good about ourselves. If we don’t, it will drive us mad until we tell the truth.

God’s tool of our conscience is nothing compared to what he uses to hold us together! His pride and glory, Love! Your last name does not make a family, nor does blood. It is how much one person cares for another person.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Mother's Obituary

After 89 years, Esther Beatrice Stewart McLaurin completed her life’s journey on Monday, February 25th, 2008.

The daughter of Hosea Henry Stewart and Gertrude (Grady) Stewart, she was born on September 27, 1918 in what is now Princeton, Indiana, but what was then a specifically African American township separate from Princeton, called Lyle Station. When her mother died of cancer while she was in high school, she took on the responsibility of being the homemaker for her father and her four brothers and single sister, and remained so until she graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School. At that time, she left home when her father remarried. She received secretarial training and became a legal secretary to her uncle, Cornelius R. Richardson, Esq., who was among the first Negro Attorneys in Indiana and a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Through his generous assistance, she was able to attend nursing school at Provident Hospital, Chicago, Illinois, a school created specifically for African American patients, which set s new level for care in a separate-but-equal segregated north. This chapter is seldom talked about, but you can find the history of Provident Hospital here.

She graduated with honors, a member of the first class of nurses eligible for registration, and successfully passed the Illinois state examination for certification as a Registered Nurse. This was during the start of World War II. On becoming an R.N., she volunteered to the Negro Army Nurse Corp during World War II and was commissioned Second Lieutenant. While stationed at Fort Bragg, she met the man who would become my father, Staff Sergeant Johnnie W. McLaurin. Both served at the 25th station hospital, Monrovia, Libera, West Africa, where they married.

After the war’s end, she moved briefly to Mississippi, and lived for a time in Indiana, before settling in Massachusetts. They had a total of six children; Michael, Martha, Allan, Melva, John, and myself, the youngest. In addition to mothering and nurturing her family, she obtained her Massachusetts State certification as a Registered Nurse. She then joined the Staff of Wesson Maternity Hospital (now a part of the Baystate Medical Center complex) as its first Registered Nurse of color. After over 30 years of service, primarily in the premature and neo-natal intensive care nurseries, she retired in 1983.

She was preceeded in death by her twin brothers, Denver and Henry Stewart of Princeton, Indiana, and her parents, and her husband of 53 years, my father, who passed in 1996. She leaves two sisters and one brother, Alice Williams of Pennsylvania, Marva Stewart and Felton Stewart of Illinois, and a sister-in-law, Jessie Ruth (McLaurin) Willis of Springfield, Massachusetts. In addition to her six children, she leaves behind 13 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

My mother’s life was one of quiet pioneering, breaking gender and color barriers that we have a hard time even appreciating today. She joined the army, before women were officially accepted int the army, and achieved an officers rank due to her level of education. She became a Registered nurse, a level of education on par with a doctor’s medical degree, in order to fulfill her calling to serve and care for others. She met a man who was of a lower rank than her officers status, and engaged in a relationship that was illegal under military rules, marrying him and remaining so for over 50 years. She broke rules, stubbornly and with a purpose, through the strength of character and a firm belief that she could achieve anything she wanted through hard work and perseverance. But within ad beyond all of this, she was my Ma, the person who raised me most directly, and influenced me most. And, though I never really appreciated it as a child, she was my hero.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On my mother dying, tonight.

When a parent dies, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that you expected it, or even that the parent wanted it, longed for the release of death, railing against the too strong hold of life with a body that would not surrender when called to. It doesn’t matter that you ought to have accepted it as inevitable long ago, or that maybe you did, on a surface level. It hits hard, and real, and long, and convulsively, like dry heaves at the end of a long illness. What matters in those first hours, come days, looking forward into weeks, after you find out, when the pain finds you and curls around your belly and makes itself at home. What matters is the black and red empty psychic whine that reverberates with long empty echoes off the walls of the canyons of your insides. What matters is that empty roller coaster feeling that rises and falls, making you believe that echoing twinge is the last, until another joins it, and another, and then another, and then you realize you’ve been awake for hours and it feels like the night is never going to end.

It doesn’t matter that you’re not a baby. You feel like one, as the slow, sinking realization grabs hold that you are no longer the child of anyone living. It hits you that someone who was there at your entry into this plane—whatever you want to believe this world is, a place between other places or an existential place unto itself—is gone. Someone who witnessed your entry here, and maybe the only person present there to whom that entry was significant, is no more. One last barrier between you and mortality is removed. And you feel like that baby, again; alone, and cold, and crying against the encroaching isolation.

It doesn’t matter that you’re an adult, because each adult is also someone’s child, as much as someone’s parent. It doesn’t matter that you’re supposed to understand how this whole cycle of life thing works, and that nobody makes it out alive. None of it matters, toward making you feel any better about it.

It’s because she wanted to go, I think, that I don’t feel bad that she’s dead. Or maybe it’s just innate selfishness. She wanted, and was ready, to die. And so I don’t feel sad that she got what she wanted. I just feel sad at being left behind. And that’s just silly. As silly as the tug of regret at not having said goodbye tonight. My last words to her were “I love you.” But that was over a week ago. It should have been last night.

At this point, I’m tired of crying, tired of searching for sleep that won’t come, and past a point of exhaustion that makes anything understandable. Or seem to matter.

Goodbye, Mom. I love you.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Big T's Triumph (Part 1 of 2)

In my church we have a yearly tradition of lay people coming up and giving their version of a personal “Faith Journey” this time of year. But it’s a small congregation-really a small town-and we’re pretty much at the end of people willing to do so. But we have one more resource; the kids. So the 3 oldest kids have been asked for consecutive Sundays in church to give their own version of a faith journey. It can be a talk about what God means to him or her, or what they think of the church or the world and their place in either.

This past Sunday was Big T’s turn. He was at first excited about it, then nervous, then downright tearfully fearful. On the Saturday before, we went for a walk amidst the fresh fallen snow that blanketed our rural road, and we got it all out, and he talked about what was bothering him. The thing I’ve realized is that, at 10 years old, this kid has a lot going on in his head. I don’t want to seem to be bragging, but I think—and in a sense I hope—it’s more than other 10 year olds. Certainly more than I had going on in there at his age. Chaos and depth, fear and hopes, all jumbled in odd contexts of popular culture and fantasy fiction.

The gist of his concern was that he felt I was asking him—no, requiring him—to stand up in front of the church and bear his soul, telling them his most personal thoughts that he never even necessarily told me or his Mom. This came out in a dribble, then a flood of anger and resentfulness that caught me by surprise. But that’s the opportunity of parenting, isn’t it? The chance to explain our actions, what we would and would not ever require of our kids, and the hope that if those lines ever get blurred, that the child would have the strength and willingness to call us on it.
Of course he doesn’t have to say anything he doesn’t want to, or do anything in that context that he wouldn’t want to. That’s what I communicated. That’s what he heard. It’s a chance to say what he thought, and opportunity to share a story or two and reveal what he wanted to and nothing more. Not an inch more than he wanted to give, or to show, or to reveal. It’s an opportunity, not a punishment. It’s a chance, not a requirement.

After that, we went back, and he was able to, relatively quickly, put down into words what he is willing to say about God, and his belief. After a week of his really being terrified of the act, its completion (the writing at least) went so quickly as to almost be funny. He finished in about an hour.

And the thing is, he was quite proud of what he’d done. And that was the opportunity I really wanted for him.

Later this week, with his permission, I will post what he had to say.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Don't Give Up

Okay, so I'm home sick today and yesterday, and since my fever broke, hopefully not tomorrow. But being sick brings you down, for sure. I've been listening to this video all afternoon, and it helps. It helps.

Cultcha Culcha, culcha.

Massachusetts is great for the arts. The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) was established in 1979 to provide access to cultural activities for all segments of the Commonwealth's population. The Local Cultural Council (LCC) Program, the second largest grant program of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, is a grassroots complement to the agency's centralized grant programs. Allocations are made to all of Massachusetts' 351 cities and towns to support community cultural activities. The LCC Program is the most extensive system of its kind in the nation to support arts, sciences and humanities.

It’s a unique program. No other state in the country has as many local councils as Massachusetts. Over 2,500 volunteers serve on the 329 local cultural councils that reach every city and town in the state.

I recently (okay, not so recently-more like in the last quarter of last year…but I haven’t blogged in a while, sosueme) joined the Conway Cultural Council (CCC), as one of three newbies. We had to take an online test in which we learned about LCCs and their responsibilities, and then participate in a session where we reviewed grants.

Grant funds are assigned to each local cultural council each year, divvied up by the MCC (Massachusetts Cultural Council). These are then in tern divided amongst appropriate grant applications that demonstrate a local public benefit, are not part of any town budget, and are (in the case of programs that request funds for sequential years) moving toward self-sustaining status. The program is essentially a boost for a one time cultural event, or a (short-term) helping hand for a new self-sustaining public-benefiting program. All in all, it’s a very good thing.

We met on cold wintry morning, to find the town hall closed. After waiting about twenty minutes, we finally located the keys, but found the inside not much warmer than the outside. What was warm was the reception from the other members, and their willingness to walk the newbies through the process. Also as warm was the discussion of the grant proposals that we had received several weeks earlier to review and comment on at the meeting. As a result of having reviewed these in advance, we went through the list pretty quickly.

The problem with a finite pot, however, is that you have to make hard choices at the end. If we had double the allocated budget, we could have let fly all the applications we wanted. Not having the budget though, we had to re-evaluate of the basis of greatest impact and public benefit. These hard choices were eased just a bit by problems with some of the applications, which (unfortunately) caused some programs that would otherwise have been strong contenders, to be eliminated. Yes, as they taught you in school, reading the instruction and crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s does count.