A Snickers Doodle

The candy bowl sits
on the hallway stairs
by the front door.
Once again, it proved more
than we needed, meted
out to a smaller number
of children than last year.
And last year fewer
than the year before.
“These bags of candy must be
getting bigger every year,”
I say, enunciating
like a high fructose
Demosthenes around the third
of five Snickers minis whose
empty wrappers will crackle
as they crinkle in my pocket
en route to the kitchen.
It’s not that I’m hiding
evidence from Herself
of winnowing the leftovers.
The bowl’s growing emptiness
is my snacking gun.
I’m hiding (denying)
how consumed I am by
my shaky resolve,
my spooky weakness
for the wee candy bars
I’ll scarf during those
first days of November.
And then I catch a glimpse
of my profile in the mirror
on the way to the trash.
Ohhh, the HORROR!

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Broken Harmonies

Time has smoothed
the jagged peaks
separating what never
could’ve been surmounted
over the long run.
Now the dust of empty years
covers the path from one
to the other, where
their footprints went
only so far and then,
inevitably, turned back.
But where they could
never again walk
together, their music
might still mingle,
flying in faint harmony
over the obfuscating
and the unassailable,
but only if they would
listen to one another.
’Tis a shame that one,
the dreaming pragmatist,
can’t hear it anymore
not morning nor night.
And the other, ever and always
the pragmatic dreamer,
won’t.

A Big Cup of Joe

I was sitting in a Starbucks in Albany, just hanging out and sipping my coffee for a change, rather than running out to the car in the early morning summer rainstorm, only to run someplace else, while gulping down all my venti Caffe Verona before I got to wherever that was. But not this day. I decided to sip at today, to savor its flavor, unhurriedly swishing it around my mind to parse its qualities and nuance instead of tipping it down my throat, like I was tossing it down a drain. Rather than tighten my focus to the narrow-gauge tunnel of vision before me and the compact thought of my present obsession, I opted to absorb the entire room before me from the chair by the door. I noticed the longer hair and scruffy beards of the university students that reminded me of myself from four decades before and wondered what next. Patched bell-bottoms? I looked into the faces of the coeds to discern their thoughts and dreams, rather than just peripherally noticing only their legs as I normally would while speeding out the door while focused on the steam and splash emanating from my cup’s white plastic top. They’re so young, I thought, so self-absorbed, so locked on what’s in the front of the line inside themselves while the world whooshes by around them. At a table in the far corner, a quintet of men about my age held a raucous conversation about politics, the Yankees and the weather, punctuated with thunderous laughs. They drew side-eyes and smirks from the students as they looked up from viewing their own worlds through the glowing windows most held in one hand while sucking down some frothy-topped espresso concoction in the other. I typed a note of this dichotomy on the electronic mirror that sat on my lap reflecting my own thoughts. I turned it off, slapped closed its flap and carried the rest of my still more-than-warm coffee out to the car, where I began sucking it into the gut that told me I really didn’t quite belong with either of the tribes with whom that morning I’d shared breathing in the aroma of roasted Arabica, fresh perfume and carpe diem. The rain had stopped and I started the engine, tucked my cup in its center console nest, pulled out of the parking lot, my eyes seeing little more than that framed by the windshield and my mind viewing more than the traffic around me. I took one long final pull on my Caffe Verona and tossed the cup of knowledge on the floor behind me with the others lying there since Monday. Today, I’d slowly consumed more of the world around me than usual and it tasted of sweet memory, bitter realization and the tempering half-and-half of middle age. I figured it would keep me going until 10:00.

Ramble Tamble #1

When you’re in the middle of it, living and learning, learning about living, living as a means of learning, you don’t notice how you might be different from (or the same as) some guys across the ocean or across the room. You don’t notice much about anything but what’s inside the three inches of air surrounding your body.

They are Them, There, Then. You are You, Here, Now. Context is but a ghost, barely a specter of a concept through which you  your place in a wider world. You accept ideas, tenets, the virtual castle walls within which you secure your position as the center of the Universe. You don’t question. God just IS, He is a He and you need to toe his line in order to win the lovely parting gifts they hand you for completing the Home version of this dicey Game of Life.

The other day, I asked myself not only who I am, but what, forcing myself to look beyond myself as this sack of meat, its spark of intellectual and essential energy and the possessor of opposing thumbs that answers to Joseph, Joe, Joey and any of a hundred or so discrete alphanumeric identifiers that differentiate me from you. And you and you, as well.

I saw such a small thing, a cluster of cells both good and ill, beneficial and malignant, functional and inert, held modestly upright by some universally accepted beliefs that inherently make me superior to so much of the rest of the inhabitants of this blue marble upon which we stand as it falls, rises, or circles in the vastness of the Universe.

And so much of what I see is just a matter of dumb luck, some bit of kismet that Valentine met Maria and Patrick loved Lizzy and they all somehow decided to leave their homes in Europe to come to this coast-to-coast set of geographic coordinates that may make this the most varied and valuable piece of real estate on the planet. They came to this place where people can be free to become the monarchs of their own existence. Here in this nation established upon the premise that all men are created equal.

Except, of course, if you were on the wrong end of our “peculiar institution,” where white men owned black men who did the physical labor that either built or buttressed the Whites’ socioeconomic standing. And that sin was committed even in my hometown, tucked up here in the upper right corner of your map, which is the oldest chartered municipality in the country.

And also except if you were a member of the class of original inhabitants of this breadth of the continent. Then you were crushed in the essentially forgotten, if considered at all, dirty little secret of American’s Manifest Destiny, which included eviction, subjugation, military intimidation, interdiction and an open-air type of incarceration. And, quite often, our Euro-America’s God-blessed version of the final solution to the “Indian problem,” eradication.

Which brings us rambling back to my original premise. When you are so busy trying to make it from First to Twelfth Grade, from freshly minted believer to elder keeper of whatever Word you follow, from allowance grabber to worker bee and then retirement check-cashing senior, you don’t think of these things. You pretty much have to live within your insulated little castle keep, those walls of ideas and ideals I spoke of before.

It’s human nature. Self-preservation, self-centeredness, selfishness, maybe even a selective selflessness, draw blinders around us from which we might occasionally sneak a peek outside ourselves. Then we pull our heads back within the silken bonds of our own spiritual and intellectual cells. There in the comforting darkness we see house-of-mirrors reflections of ourselves, warm and fuzzy, clean and bright, dark and angry, volatile and violent. And we accept them or reject them with but a blink, a wink or a meditative, prayerful closing of the eyes.

Please forgive me this tedious ramble. I’ve been reading again, something I haven’t done as much as when I was younger. Back then it was hardcore youthful inquisitiveness, feeding the insatiable intellectual beast as much trivia, possibly necessary minutiae and winning team history it could take. Now, it’s my own version of sticking this silver-pated gourd out of the dusty crust of virtual Hesch topography to see what I missed. In my old age I’ve become another type of Self-something. Self-aware. It’s embarrassing and painful, yet somehow freeing.

I see the mistakes, poor judgments and failures I’ve made. I see the victories, loves and lucky guesses, too. On electronic and physical pages I’ve cast them out there like stars across a desert sky. And now I see how they tell stories and give necessary direction, even if I have almost reached my ultimate destination.

I just thought I’d pass this on to you, since you’re traveling that way, too. Slán abhaile.  Auf wiedersehen.  Safe travels.  Ramble Tamble. Down the road I go.

This started its life as a poem, then grew like some good ol’ southern kudzu, spilling all aroun d the page, seemingly taking over everything from my writing hand to better judgment. By the way, Ramble Tamble is the title of the first cut on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s  classic 1970 album, Cosmo’s Factory. It one of the rockingest songs I know, a great road song and might be as good a fit for our current times as it was for my youth.

I Was Just Thinking…Making Us Better

When I was a kid, my mom would walk me from our flat on Bradford Street down to Dr. Jack’s brownstone office on the border of Albany’s Washington Park. Even now I can recall the giant yellow pine blocks, smoothed to a semi-gloss sheen over the years by innumerable toddlers’ hands. I’d pull them from the corner toy box to build grand castles and forts there in his rubbing alcohol-redolent waiting room.

But beyond those tactile and olfactory memories, I remember the vaccination shots he’d give me for any number of kids’ diseases, most especially that polio shot. But I don’t remember Mom paying anyone any money, which in our house was usually as scarce as enough real beds for everyone to have his own. But Dr. Jack must have gotten paid his couple of bucks because he didn’t hesitate to drive to our house and give me another shot when I got really sick one snowy Saturday.

When I got older, I had to visit the County Health Building in the big parking lot on Pearl Street, at the bottom of Morton Avenue, in the down-sliding neighborhood that once served as the pastures for Albany’s buckle-shoed, ruminant-owning swells and a chicken sufficed as a co-pay. I remember seeing all the little brown and black kids sitting with their moms and grandmas, waiting to get their shots. It never occurred to me if they had to pay for their pointed opportunities to avoid the kind of childhood diseases I did.

It wasn’t until I had to dig into my own pocket for a visit to the doctor, ponying up some cash for necessary medication, paying the hospital for sewing up another of my skull’s collisions with reality or saving my life when an asthma attack almost removed me from it, that I realized what a blessing and burden is the quid pro quo for some sawbones to exercise their Hippocratic Oaths.

These memories of those long-past times don’t surface very often. In fact, I’d forgotten them, even when, check in hand, I brought our girls to their pediatrician for all their shots. Even when my own health speed bumps brought me enough pause for thought. Even as I bumped up against mortality and Medicare.

That was, until this week, as I watched the proceedings of the United States Senate in attempting to dump and probably not even replace the law established to help people get healthy without having to give up not only a chicken, but the whole damn farm. It forced me to scour my recollection-seeping mind to recall the history I share with America’s post-World War Two healthcare system.

In my life, I’ve seen kids in leg braces and iron lungs, draped in pox scars and being born without limbs because their pregnant mom took a medication to help her get over morning sickness. I’ve known kids with cancer who now are grandparents like me. I’ve seen the advent of machines that will keep you alive until modern science, magic and prayer can get you better. And I’ve given the nod to turn them off.

These days, I see how much of my meager assets I spend on keeping a pretty healthy family pretty healthy and wonder how those little girls in the County Health Office and the little boys up in the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation waiting on their free vaccinations managed to do that in their lives. And, yeah, I know I’m paying for some of that, but I know that now they can have the health insurance they never could before if they ever need it. It’s not their fault it costs so damn much. It’s the system’s.

It’s a system that’s grown as creaky, expensive and imperfect as I have in sixty-odd years and I’d like to see both of us healthier before I have to bid you all goodbye. But I’d never ask my family to kill me first in order to cure me. And that’s not me talking the dreaded P word—Politics. Just some old guy’s sore back, shaking hands, stiff-walled heart still pushing what few undiluted drops remain of his human decency and common sense.

I ramble, therefore I am. A true change of pace. But I’ve paid my dues for this pulpit and sickbed. Thank God I’m an American who’s free to express myself here and who’s lived long enough to see how we as a nation can make bad things get better. But I also know that’s if we all get pointed in roughly the same direction, and to accomplish that we’ll have to accept the individual and communal guidance of “the better angels of our nature.” 

Asking for Directions

Robert Earl Keen tells me
the road goes on forever
and the party never ends.
But sometimes you reach
a crossroads, or a fork
in your life’s road.
And if you have no map,
or go off the reservation,
you could take a wrong turn,
if there’s such a thing
as “wrong” on your journey.
I only know I never could
remember the way back
from those corners I cut
when I left the path
others set for me.
But these latter days, as I
grow old on the trail,
no matter which way I turn,
I see nothing but dead ends
and I’m not ready to stop.
So that’s why I’m asking you,
since you’re still running
and look like you’re enjoying
your trip more than getting
to that dark place where
the exit signs are turned off,
“Which way to the party?”

No More To Soar On Eagles’ Wings

Bricks fall daily
from the temple,
mortar crumbling
like stale bread,
raining the crumbs
of best intentions
upon whoever walks in
its proximity.
But so few do now.
Within its walls,
words that stirred
hearts and souls,
echo like dust shrouding
its empty tabernacle.
The book lies on the pulpit,
its leathery covers shut,
gilded pages tarnished,
closed to what small
light teases that eyes
will unlock its words.
Someday.
A pigeon whispers
hosannas where once
verses rose to the steeple
on eagles’ wings,
ignoring the signs
it soon will fall,
unnoticed, silent
as a tree
in an empty forest.