Kind of Unkind

“The years have not been kind,”
we’ve often hear people mutter
when they maybe saw some starlet
from their youth on TV wordlessly profess
herself the victim of her excesses,
her exes,
and usually an excess of gravity.
But at least she’s still able to tell
the tales of those years
when they made sure she
always had the right light,
an ex who was the right height
(or at least his wallet was),
and access to the right might
to keep her in sight of a public
who one day wouldn’t notice
she’d disappeared like another day
into night.

I mention this only because I looked
at myself in such retrospect today,
side-eying the mirror,
taking the measure of the man as I might
someone I’d not seen in years.
I there found a guy with more tread
on his face than the figurative tires
upon which he’s bumped along his winding race.
But I’m only a victim of my overabundant daydreams,
always believing a shiny kind of something
lay out there for me, even if for years
most have been but unkind mirage.
Like the starlet, though, I’m still here
to tell, admittedly with not much gravity,
tales of years I one day hope to profess,
while not always kind, have been
in excess.

Yes, I’ve been away from all this for a while…and then I went took a month off to introduce myself to my newest granddaughter. And maybe a little to my ever-gloomy self. So, like that little shorty I spent June with, it’s time to start standing up, looking up, and maybe babble some new stories. Today was my first step. Yeah, I may have fallen, but I always get back up again, eventually.

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The View From the Precipice Through Gray Eyes

As I sit with her sleeping on my chest,
I wonder how her world will be
if she gets the chance to be my age.
Will she ever be able to swim
in a clean lake, hide beneath a dock
where you can clearly see all the way
to the shore from beneath the water?

Will she ever return from a visit
to The Great White North and be greeted
by border protectors who only mildly mistrust her
because she might be hiding duty-free booze
in the trunk, rather than meeting scowling guys
who mistrust everyone coming across
the Rainbow Bridge who have the dark tan
and jet black hair I did at 18?

Will she be free to read, write and speak
about anything, in any manner, for and against,
as I have my whole communicative life?
She makes a wiggle and opens her gray eyes
for a second, sees someone who loves her
holding her close, safe and warm, and I wonder.

Will she one day hold her grandkid and realize
what a special thing we had in this little town,
in her Grandpa’s old big-hug country
I once thought was full of possibilities,
back before the precipitous fall into
a land of Not Anymore?

I’ve always wondered, with both my granddaughters, the blue-eyed and the gray, how the future will be for them. It’s always been windy at the top of this mountain, but these days I worry more than I ever have a rank gust could blow us off.

Divided

In basic math, they call the resulting number of something divided by another something a quotient. For instance, the quotient of 6 divided by 3 is 2. In elementary school, the teachers snuck a test by us to quantify each of our abilities to learn. The test generated a number called an Intelligence Quotient. Here’s the confusing thing, though: In mathematics (or arithmetic, as we called it back in the post-abacus/pre-calculator days) you divided two numbers to come up with a quotient; with the IQ test, it was the intelligence quotient that did the dividing of all the students. This bothered my sense of fair play and caused Barbara and Terry to sit on the other side of class. I asked the Sister why and she said it was for the best. Then I asked to go to the boys room. On my way back to my new desk, I snuck a look at the list she used to divide us. I found my name next to a number. I returned to my seat and pondered how they could divide 1 from 32 and come up with 147. Dumb asses. And they wonder why I hated math.

For Day #5 of the PAD Challenge, we were charged with writing a poem based on the word or concept of “intelligence.” I quickly — and I mean before breakfast quickly — came up with this prose-like thingamabob recalling how the black-habited powers that be separated some students from others after we took a certain weird test. I usually obeyed authority. I’d question the hell out of it to see if it deserved it. I wonder if that’s why some teachers always said I was a smartass?

Case of the Forgotten Words and Remembered Faces

The mystery is why
I keep thinking of them,
remembering instances
of one on one
from years on years ago,
when I can’t recall
what I ate for breakfast.
I remember freckles,
blue eyes with gold speckles,
sweat droplets clinging
to an upper lip, or not,
the smell, the texture,
the taste of their skin,
each of the names of
the ones that changed me,
and which one would call me
Joe, Joseph, Joey or
even by my whole name.

But I can sit here and
reach into my head to toss
its books and papers all over
for ten minutes just trying
in vain to find one simple word.
Maybe something like
“cardinal” or “radiator”
or “duvet” (I’m sure one
of them had a white duvet
with a blue paisley design)
that should to be as close
to my virtual hand
as backspace or DELETE
ought to be at this moment.
But I see I’m finished now
and can forget all this
emotional ephemera
until some other day.
But I can’t. And for that,
I must remember to be grateful.

Day 4’s effort for PAD April ’18. This one required taking the word “Case” and using it in the title, like “Case (something or other)” and then writing a poem based on it. And that’s what I just did. I wrote a something or other.

Celebrate, Celebrate

In the service area waiting room,
most of the people waiting
for their cars to be healed
are older men, retirees who sit
and gab about cars they once owned,
or that white Shelby Mustang
they wish they could. Some wear
baseball caps emblazoned with the branch
of the armed forces in which they served
when they were kids.

The 70-something gent in the dark blue
Navy cap caresses the Shelby’s curves
as the bright lights gleam off
the embroidered “CV-34” and “USS Oriskany”
on the front of his cap.
I want to ask him about the fire
on the Big O, killing forty-four
of his shipmates in ’66.
But you probably shouldn’t bring up
such stuff at 10:20 AM in a place
where the only thing to drink
is bad coffee and Three Dog Night
blares a harmonized “Celebrate, celebrate…”

I drain my coffee and recall
my Draft physical and wonder
which of the guys who stood naked
in ranks of eight with me for some
perverse inspection on that
cold tile floor could be sitting
in the blue leatherette chairs
on this tile floor, bouncing
their knees and waiting bareheaded
for their names to be called again.

Been a depressed dry spell for me lately. But being out in the world this morning, seeing guys my age waiting around in somewhat jovial moods for ‘something’ spiked my imagination.

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.” 

The Climb Left Me Breathless

Now I know. But I wish
I didn’t have to.
Then I’d be able to look down
that deep well of recollection
and enjoy seeing the reflection
of the guy I used to be.
Instead, I focus on the skin
of memories I scraped onto its walls
in my halting climb to today.
And as fallible, forlorn and
sore as that climb has made me,
seeing that hopeful face
staring back, framed by all those
slime-coated scars, breaks
what’s left of my heart.
Funny, even though I’m standing
here on the ground, peering into
this well feels like I’m looking
down from some mountain top.

That view of my yesterdays
often hits me like a gut-punch, 
taking my breath away.

I quickly wrote this poem in response to the prompt set in that photo at the top of the piece. It’s from my friend Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge.