Archive for August, 2011

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I Wish I Was Grandma Moses

August 31, 2011

Shirley D’Auria was a most amazing and gifted human being. There are those rare people who enter your life, even if only for a brief time, who have a singular effect on you. Shirley was one of these. I knew Shirley when I was stationed in the Peace Corps in the Phillipines, as was she, but even in the short time I knew her, I was enchanted by her presence. She was a brilliant and beautiful shooting star who flashed through the night sky of our lives and then was gone all too soon.

Shirley left this plane of existence in 1999. I had not seen her in twenty-seven years. But I felt, and I still feel, the powerful tide of her love in the words of this, her last story to a friend.

I Wish I Was Grandma Moses

by Shirley D’Auria

They had pulled out my plumbing. It was gone along with the nasty mass that had been crawling up on my chi for who-knows-how-long. The tube was out of my nose (disgusting medieval contraption). The staples were out, too. That was a story. A beautiful Asian-American angel came smiling up to my bedside and said, “Hi. I’m Dr. Rhee and I’m here to take out your staples.”

Until then I had been visualizing the nasty pointed curly thing I use in the office and wondering if that’s what they were going to use on me. Trying to be brave I said, “So, Doctor, tell me about yourself.” She liked that. She got herself comfortable on the side of my bed and smiled and started working.

“Weeellll, I’ve been a medical student for 18 months.”

“What made you decide on medicine?” I asked.

“Weeelll, actually I had a hard time deciding between being a concert pianist and a doctor.”

I wanted to kiss her. Instead, I sighed deeply and let her tickle my ivories until she was done. Then I thanked her and reminded her that even though she may not play concerts, the piano could be a source of joy and beauty in her life and a way to balance the great pain she would experience as a doctor.

So all the basic maintenance was done and they had talked me into going right ahead with the chemo and I was scared to death. I was laying in my bed thinking, “You damn fool. The cancer didn’t kill you, so now you’re going to die of fright!” Then, for the first time since I had been diagnosed two weeks earlier, I cried.

I cried for my lost body parts, and for the fine, brave Yale New Haven doctors who treated me with respect. I imagined they had worked as carefully as if they were dismantling a nuclear bomb by hand. I cried for the considerable professionalism and genuine caring of the nurses and floor staff.

I remember Kim Kelly who cleaned my bathroom. All the while she was cleaning she was telling me about the moped accident that crushed her knee and how she was in the hospital for seven weeks and they told her she’d never walk again. But there she was cleaning my bathroom and I was so grateful for her in every which way.

When my mother saw me crying, she came and sat on my bed and comforted me with mother words and rubbed my legs with mother rubs. In that one minute I loved her again as I had as a child — deep and grateful and pure as I had before my father’s mental illness had driven up my walls. If only I had known that resolution would come so simply, I would have saved all those thousands of dollars on all those years of therapy.

Oh well, my therapist is on her way to vacation with my money this very minute. What could be bad?

Anyway, while mother rubbed, I noted that they had changed the pouch on my intravenous and wondered if they were slipping the chemo in on the sly because they knew I was so scared. Thinking that wasn’t a bad idea, I decided not to ask and began drifting off.

I slid into a level of deep relaxation. Not sleep exactly, but a deep interior place that was filled with a vision as clear as a bright, dry afternoon in June.

I was driving my yellow bug under a bright blue sky. I knew it was me because I could see my hairy Italian arm folded out the driver side window with an oversized band aid where the intravenous had been. And I knew it was my yellow bug because the driver side window framed the whole scene.

I was driving — or more like floating in front of old Jean’s house (she’s the lady across the parking lot from my house) and Jean was standing in her doorway looking like she was painted by Grandma Moses. She had two little dot eyes and a line smile, and she was dressed in primary colors. She was calmly smiling and waving at me with just a very slightly oversized right hand — not comically oversized — just big enough so that you knew she was created by Grandma Moses.

I let Jean’s warmth and love flow over me for a good long time and when I was quite content, another house appeared next to hers and I began floating toward it in my yellow bug.

It was Elena, Jean’s next door neighbor. She’s anorexic, but in my vision she looked happy with her two dot eyes and line smile waving at me with her ever so slightly oversized right hand, dressed in her primary colors. She was so comfortable and content to be standing in her doorway waving and smiling. She didn’t feel rushed or anxious or embarrassed. She just smiled and waved until I started drifting toward the next house.

I passed each one of my neighbors in their doorways in turn, letting the love and warmth of each soak deep into me. Then I drifted past Bias waving in his doorway. Not the doorway of the fancy penthouse apartment building where he lives now, but his little house with the wood burning stove and the day glow stars and planets on his bedroom ceiling. I drifted past Linn and Patty with their children Cassidy and Elliot waving from the doorway of their farm house (I’ve never seen their farm house) with a Grandma Moses dog and cat and goat nearby. I drifted past Rene and Mikey in their new house (I’ve never seen their new house). They looked so happy and in love smiling and waving to me from their doorway. Lyn smiled and waved with her slightly oversized hand from her doorway in Clendenine Square (I’ve never seen her house in Clendenine Square), and Lars and Nancy waved as I floated by their Texas house (I’ve never seen their Texas house).

And if you’re reading this, I drifted past you in your doorway, smiling with your two dot eyes and waving at me with your little big hand. I am feeling your warmth and love flowing deep in me as I drift back toward life. Your line smile and your sunflower dress are the greatest beauty I have ever known.

I wish you could feel Suzybelle kissing the tears of joy from my cheeks right now. I wish you could see how relieved she looks smiling at me with her little line smile. I wish this great tide of love washing over me, flows back to you in even greater measure, and that it washes back and forth over us forever.

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Birthday Gift from a Storm

August 27, 2011

As I sit at my computer awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Irene amidst the constant TV reportage chattering in the background, my thoughts travel back to a storm that I will never forget. I have vague memories of severe storms from when I was a child, though the only lasting image is that of using candles for light. But the storm of which I speak was a memorable one of epic proportion and great consequence to many. The storm was Typhoon Sening.

I had arrived in the Philippines in September of 1970, eager to begin my two year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. The first weeks were spent in orientation, first in Manila, and then in the province in which I was to be stationed. The final step was a meeting at the regional Peace Corps headquarters. That is what brought me to Legaspi in the province of Albay in early October.

When I arrived, there were many nervous faces, for the news of an impending typhoon circulated rapidly. Typhoon. Sounded pretty exotic. Little did I know what a terrible event was about to occur. Typhoon is the name given to hurricane-like storms in the Pacific. We had been very well prepared for the culture and language of this new land, but nothing could have prepared us for what followed.

I was staying in a sturdy wooden structure built in the era of the American occupation of the Philippines before World War II. We were told to stay inside and under no circumstance venture out or be near the now shuttered windows. Since it was my twenty-second birthday, we had a small celebration as the rain began falling. As the night progressed, the wind picked up, and soon the now-pelting rain was striking the corrugated metal roof like machine-gun fire. An eerie howling whistled through the building as we huddled inside through the night. Midway through my fitful sleep, I bolted upright, awakened by a loud boom. At first I thought perhaps it was only a dream, then BOOM! No, it was real, and was beginning to repeat steadily. I crawled in fear to the Filipino who was staying with us, and he answered before I even asked.

“Coconuts. They blow from the trees and strike like cannon balls. Stay away from windows, no?”

Yes! I rejoined my fellow volunteers with this news, and we spent the rest of the long night overcome with the feeling of helplessness that the power of nature has the capacity to impose.

Late the next morning, an odd thing occurred. The wind ceased as did the deluge, and a strange silence enveloped the area. We decided to venture outside to have a look. It was the eye of the storm. As the clouds moved rapidly above us, we stood in the half light, somewhat like that which appears just before dawn, and surveyed the destruction around us. The nipa huts of the local townspeople were in various states of disassembly, some missing roofs, some minus several walls. The ground was strewn with debris, both natural and manmade. I had never seen anything like this. The call to return came, for the remainder of the typhoon would soon descend upon us. The term “hunkering down” would forever take on new meaning for me.

Sening's aftermath

The following day we received instructions for a new and unscheduled duty, the distribution of chlorine to the towns along the seaside to purify the water and hopefully prevent disease. The journey was startling, passing scenes of unbelievable total destruction as we picked our way around the bloated corpses of animals. This was to be the true test of our language skills, as we had to explain in the local dialect, Bicol, the amount of chlorine to be added. Too much would cause painful diarrhea, and too little wouldn’t keep them safe from the danger of cholera.

The official results of the storm were not surprising given our personal experience of it. Typhoon Sening was the worst in thirty-six years with winds that clocked 170 miles per hour. There were 768 deaths, thousands of injured, and countless lives affected for months to come. The food shortages because of the destroyed crops, the lack of shelter, and the destruction of what little infrastructure there was to begin with (including the schools in which we were to be teaching) were all borne with amazing grace by the people of our new home.  For the next two years, I bore witness to the scars left by Sening and the grit and perseverance it takes to overcome such loss, and I carried those memories back home.

I  do not mean to disparage Irene or make light of all the voices of doom that fill the airwaves. However, having had the opportunity to look at the world from a vantage point so removed from that of our relatively pampered existence as Americans, I gained a new appreciation for all that we have here: the safety of our homes, the ready availability of life’s necessities like food and water, and the presence of quickly responding help when disaster does befall us. That was Sening’s birthday gift to me.

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The Crazy Man in the Bichara

August 25, 2011

Naga City  is the  capital of the province of Camarines Sur in the Philippines. To most, this would sound like a line from a boring school geography textbook, but to me it is the floodgate of so many rich memories. When I served in the Peace Corps from 1970 to 1972, this was a place I spent much time. It’s not likely that I will ever forget it.

The word “city” has a certain connotation to Americans that conjures up images  of skyscrapers, museums, subways, and neon lights. This, however, was not the case for most cities in the provinces of the Philippines. The only real reason for its classification as a city was its large concentration of people. No skyscrapers, unless a two-story building or two would qualify. No museums. No subways or neon lights.

It did, though, have its attractions for the volunteers who were living in relatively primitive conditions out in the boondocks. There were, for example, actual restaurants. My usual haunt was the Sampaguita, a simple single room joint next to the Alatco bus station. Aside from the local fare, one could order such exquisite American specialties like Vienna sausage (straight from the can). I became somewhat famous there after my first few visits when I kept ordering fried mosquito for dinner (in the local dialect, chicken was “manuk” and mosquito was “namuk,” a confusion I thankfully straightened out). After washing the meal down with a few San Miguels, the fine local beer,  it was as worthy an establishment as the Four Seasons in our eyes.

There were hotels. True, the star system of ratings wouldn’t apply to them (unless perhaps there could be a One Asteroid level) since there was no room service, air conditioning, TV, furniture other than a bed, or soundproofing. But the price was right, and they made you glad to see the coming of the next morning.

But the best thing about Naga was the Bichara Theater. This was a movie theater in the heart of Naga,  named after the daughter of the owner. Locally produced movies were shown there (the big star at the time was a teen named Nora Anor), but American movies also somehow found their way onto the billing. And the Bichara was one of the few buildings in Naga that was air conditioned.

Most Americans appreciate their air conditioners, I’m sure, but not the  same way we did. Living in the tropics is an adjustment of major proportion. A native New Jerseyan, I was familiar with the reality of “hot and humid” from my twenty-one summers here, but that was no match for the steam bath of this archipelago. The blazing sun alternated with short-lived but heavy rainfalls inevitably followed by steam rising from every surface with the cycle repeating itself throughout the day. Mildew was the norm when it came to towels and clothing. I saved a headline from a local paper bemoaning a “cold spell” with a record low of — gasp! — 64 degrees.

Whenever I had to go to Naga for a meeting with the Provincial school personnel, I would pass by the Bichara to see if anything of interest (other than Flying Kick Killer) was playing. The first movie that attracted my attention was Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run. I was not a big movie goer back then, but I was aware that Woody was a funny guy and I had some time to kill before my meeting, so I paid my two pesos and went in.

The theater was empty, or more precisely, the seats were empty. There were a few clusters of people on the floor in the aisles and in the orchestra area under the screen. I settled in midway down the rows and smack in the middle seat. While waiting for the film to start, I took a closer look around. It became clear that the locals that had come were not here for the movie but rather for the luxury of the cool theater air. The families present were either lying down in preparation for a climate-controled snooze or setting up for a comfortable meal.

The already dim theater grew dark, and on the screen appeared the majestically waving Philippine flag. The national anthem blared from the sound system, and all in attendance rose, some singing along, “Bayang magiliw, perlas ng Silanganan, alang ng puso, sa dibdib mo’y buhay…” I realized this was a required occurrence at all theaters; annoying, perhaps, but I surely learned the anthem. Then, as the opening credits ran, the Filipinos resumed their napping or eating.

Now, I must tell you that Woody Allen is one of those comedic actors whose mere presence, even without doing anything,  makes me chuckle, so I was predisposed to react as I did. Within the first five minutes, I was howling, bent over and in tears. Heads began to pop up, at first anxiously looking to see if there was a crazy man with them in the center of the Bichara Theater. Soon those heads began to swivel, first from me to the screen after realizing that this strange American in their midst was actually laughing at the movie, and then, after several mystified minutes of confused viewing, from me to each other with the unmistakable look, even in the muted movie light, of “What the heck does he find so funny about this incomprehensible babble?!” Clearly, Woody’s humor was lost in cultural translation. They eventually  blocked out my further assorted snickers, hoots, and guffaws and went back to their own pursuits, no doubt with the added benefit of having a story to tell their neighbors when they arrived back home. This exact scenario was repeated a year later when Woody’s Bananas hit the Bichara, although there was somewhat less attention paid to me. I guess some of them were there the last time or else had heard of the oddball foreigner in the middle seat.

To this day, if I am up late flipping through the cable movie channels and come upon Take the Money and Run or Bananas, my thoughts jump back four decades to those delightfully cool afternoons of entertainment fueled by Woody as well as those theatergoers, and I watch again. I chuckle anew, but now not only about the antics on the screen, but because of my memories of those unforgettable tropical matinees as the crazy man in the center seat at the Bichara.

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Let Us Be Mangrove Trees

August 23, 2011

Weddings are a time-honored ceremony to which most of us are exposed from the time we are young, through stories and pictures if not in person. Growing up, I assumed they were all pretty much a standard affair. I have since discovered they come, like the people who participate in them, in all different varieties. I went to one such wedding not too long ago.

It was a Buddhist ceremony involving a Chinese nurse who worked with my wife and a Jewish doctor. The day got off to an inauspicious start as the drive to the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens (I didn’t even know such a thing existed) was horrendous. There was a street festival on 2nd Avenue, and it took an hour to get crosstown and into the Midtown Tunnel. We therefore arrived late; the ceremony on the top floor of the Sheraton Hotel had already begun. There were only two seats left in the very back row, which was fine with me because that put us right next to the three musicians playing enchantingly exotic traditional Chinese music.

The ceremony was wonderful, a combination of mystical and meditative elements with the simplicity and efficiency that, in my opinion, the occasion calls for. A program was given, listing, with charmingly incorrect grammar,  the events in the following manner:

1 Commencement of ceremony

2 Witnessing Venerable enter the ceremony hall

3 Groomsman an Best man enters the ceremony hall

4  Parents of the Groom and Groom enters the ceremony hall

We arrived at item 7, Chanting of Incense Prayer, Heart Sutra, and Transfer of Merits. This was the mystical and meditative part. The Venerable, a four foot eight inch tall Buddhist monk, chanted while gentle gongs sounded and incense wafted about the altar. Item 17 was Singing the Song of Blessings, an audience participation item, with lyrics provided in Chinese and English:

“Guests are welcomed by fragrances of flowers, and the air is filled with happiness.

In the midst of eternal love, let us always unite as one.

Let us help and love each other and respect our parents at the same time.

Improve ourselves with the Dharma and establish a good family.

As the sun rises, green leaves appear, this vast earth is blessed by spring.

In the midst of eternal love, let us be a pair of sparrows that flies side by side.

Let us love ourselves and others because all beings are one.

Practicing the Dharma together and be helpful to other people.

While the moon shines upon the red flower, the singing of the birds are lively.

In the midst of eternal love, let us be a pair of Mangrove trees that support each other.

Let us be kind and compassionate to each other and be models for all humankind.

Have sincere faith in the Dharma, and pass it from generation to generation.”

I thought it was beautiful, the message poetically transcending both culture and religion. Final item: 21, End of Ceremony. All in about forty minutes.

The reception was unusual as well, at least by my Italian wedding standards. Alcohol was served only at the cocktail hour, and during the reception a ten course Chinese banquet was served at the tables while the Jewish guests helped themselves to a Kosher buffet.

The meal was wonderful, but the reception ceremonies were nothing short of an abomination. It was like one of those tacky Japanese game shows you can find on cable TV with a garishly dressed and obnoxious MC intrusively foisting audience participation “activities” on a rather stunned group of guests (especially the bride’s rather proper family). It was like an overly long Saturday Night Live skit gone terribly wrong. As the next day was a work day, we left early,  missing the Grand Finale, which was probably a blessing based on what preceded.

The unintentional comedy of the reception aside, I suppose this wedding reinforces the status of the continuing diversity of this great nation. But more than that, to me it serves as an affirmation that love does conquer all.

There are so many barriers between people that sometimes seem insurmountable: social class, ethnic background, religion, cultural differences. Love has always proven to be the way past them, whether it takes the form of simple friendship or full-blown romance. In this tumultuous shrinking world of ours, this is a commodity that is more essential than ever if we are to survive as a species.

So I say mazal tov and gong xi to this couple and congratulations to all others in whatever language is necessary, for there can be few celebrations greater than that of this most intimate and important of bonds between us. Let us all strive to be those Mangrove trees supporting one another. Then each of us who believes that love indeed conquers all can be models for all humankind. Perhaps peace may just follow.

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Boots

August 21, 2011

Going away to college was a very crucial period in my development, as I’m sure it is for many. It allowed me to both lose myself and find myself. It was a place where my metamorphosis could unfold away from the security and constraints of home. It is where I started to become me.

It was during this time that I met Neil. He was a senior, a unique and fascinating individual, and the most brilliant mind I have ever encountered. He was slight of build with wild curly brown hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. A small grin was always upon his perpetually squinting face as though something about the world was amusing him.

His standard dress consisted of corduroy pants, a flannel shirt, an old Army jacket, and cowboy boots. Cowboy boots! How cool was that! Nobody wore cowboy boots then, no less a hip genius from a small town in Pennsylvania going to a Catholic university in New Jersey. Two things I was most definitely not (nor am I now) was hip or stylish. But I knew Cool when I saw it. I had to get me a pair of those!

A bus ride down South Orange Avenue into Newark brought me to an old fashioned Army Navy store. It was there that a few of us aspiring hipsters would go in search of Cool: military shirts with epaulets, patches of all manner to sew on those shirts, Navy pea coats, fatigue jackets, and — for some strange nonmilitary reason — cowboy boots. I sized them up. There were all styles and colors and decorations from deep maroon cowhide to green snake skin to bright red Mexican-themed models. The simple black ones with the white stitching were my choice. Far out, yet safe. That was me, all right.

Many eyes were raised at the sight of these boots, none more quizzically than my parents’. They instinctively knew better than to do more than protest mildly, however, recognizing a Statement in their evolving son when they saw one.

These boots were indeed more than just odd footwear. They were an outward symbol of the change going on within me, a reflection of both my rebellion and my search for identity. Neil crystalized this in his clothing, his views, his very being.

This is the fellow who painted Float Ismael in large white letters on the back of his Army jacket. When asked why, he said it was a prayer for humanity, taken from Moby Dick. He was the guy who was beat up by greasers one night walking from the bus stop in Vailsburg and could later philosophize stoically about the social dynamics of the attack and its causes.

I still remember vividly some of our late night conversations in the commons area on the second floor of the Boland Hall dorm where we both resided. One time I was rambling on in praise of the Doors’ Strange Days album when he asked, “Do you know what ‘Horse Latitudes’ is about?” I was taken aback by this question, partly because it was unexpected and partly because I was stunned by the prospect of trying to provide an answer to my idol when I had absolutely no idea.

“Well,” I stammered, searching desperately for a reasonable sounding response, “I think it’s about sex.”

His chuckle at my answer was not at all malicious, just genuine good humor. He proceeded to explain, not in a patronizing or condescending way, but more like that of a professor offering kindly elucidation to a novice student in need of guidance while walking across the campus green. He told me about the Horse Latitudes, an area in the ocean where the winds would cease, stilling the great ships in the doldrums during the age of sail. Water, already in short supply, could run out as the sailors waited for any breeze to help them on their way to salvation. In a sometimes desperate move, the captain would order the horses being transported to be jettisoned, and over the side they would go, plunging horrified into the blue-green depths.  The light bulb in my head flashed on! Jim Morrison’s screaming  phrase “in mute nostril agony” replayed itself in my mind, now with a visual image to match, the flaring nostrils of the beasts signaling their absolute terror as they sank beneath the waves.

It’s about sex?! What a dope!

Another time, after observing an exchange between myself and Tony Bovenzi, someone my own age but also of an unreachable but more calculated level of Cool, Neil asked me, “Do you think it’s possible for one person to totally dominate a conversation?” I was clueless as to how to answer; I wasn’t even sure of the question at the time, but it did make me think, something apart from the norm for me after a mere conversation. I fretted that he might mean ours, and he may very well have, but his asking opened a door for me to grow, probably his intent.

Then there was the motorcycle. Neil was a motorcycle guy, just another part of the enigma. He spoke of Nortons and Triumphs, entrancing me with the romance and adventure of the open road with the wind in your face and freedom in the form of the blacktop stretched out before you. I wanted one of those, too! Money, however, was a problem, as was my age: too young to make a legal purchase. When I found the small red Honda for $300, all 150 cc worth, it was Neil who signed for it. Not the throbbing black and chrome thunder steed I envisioned, but a motorcycle nonetheless. My motorcycle.

Neil rode it to my house in Bergenfield with me perched humbly behind; I owned it, but didn’t know the first thing about riding it. Neil quickly taught me on the side streets around my old neighborhood, and I learned to shift gears deftly while leaning through the turns. He had been absolutely right about the feeling it gave you.

My parents were away, so Neil slept over. He looked for something to read before turning in. I scrambled through some paperbacks I had picked up at a book sale somewhere — I didn’t think a reread of Black Beauty or Hans Brinker, the only kind of books on my shelves, was quite what he had in mind. He looked through them, and with his usual wry grin, selected from the ragtag pile something entitled The SCUM Manifesto, a raging tract by an ultra-radical feminist. He never mentioned anything about it, though I’m sure he read it cover to cover, and I hadn’t enough confidence to ask.

The next day I drove him back to campus by car, stopping briefly at my sister’s apartment in New Milford to show off my new nephew, Robby. I wasn’t sure how he’d react to this family interlude, but I didn’t let that prevent it, which in the end proved to be wise. Sometimes, I learned, you impress the most when trying to impress the least.

Neil graduated shortly thereafter and moved on to the University of Iowa, the mecca of English literature graduate students. He became a professor out there, and later, finding an outlet for his considerable social concern, the manager of a small Iowa city. I called him once, bolstered by beer late in the night of my bachelor party. I was hoping to sound more intelligent as an adult than I had as a college sophomore, but I have the feeling that was not quite the case with Neil still being the senior sage most likely dominating the conversation.

Both motorcycle and boots became part of the past when I finally embarked on my “real” adult life, married and teaching school. The little red Honda had sold quickly to another young guy with Harley visions and very little cash. Having recently had a near brush with my Creator on the bike, it was not so traumatizing to see it go, especially to such an excited buyer. It also took a bit of forgery on the bill of sale — since Neil was legal owner — as well as a letter of explanation to assuage Neil’s parents, who received official notification of the transaction in the mail which baffled them, not knowing of the bike’s existence.

Saying goodbye to my boots occurred much later and was far more difficult. After the death of my parents, my sister and I set about emptying the house we had lived in for the first two decades of our lives, not an easy task. The garage was my final assignment. After salvaging many of my father’s beloved gardening tools, I opened the peeling wooden doors of the large cabinet he had built in the back corner of the garage. There they were, the boots, forgotten for years, now covered with sawdust and webs, seed shells spilling out of the holes where the worn soles once joined the uppers, home now to mice, but somehow still proud, still rebellious. I stood and stared, a dust-flecked ray of sunlight catching the yellowed stitching in that dim vault.

These were the boots that were part of my personal history. They were there during all of my growth and change through the crazy excesses of the late 1960s. These were the boots that marched on Washington, the boots that paced nervously on the night of the first draft lottery during the height of the Vietnam War and the campus riots following the Kent State massacre, the boots that rode my first motorcycle, the boots worn in the summer of a young lover’s heartbreak. After I had returned from my Peace Corps service, these were the boots that saw me through my disoriented and cynical reimmersion into America. Most of all, they were the tangible manifestation of my relationship with Neil.

Though my first urge was to take them, I left them there. They belonged to a completed chapter in my life, one that would finally close along with the rumbling door of that empty old garage.

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Cape Cod Rhapsody

August 18, 2011

Cape Cod National Seashore

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Coincidentally, it is the year I became eligible for my Lifetime Senior Pass, entitling me to free entry to this or any other national park (“Good for as long as you are,” said the smiling young park ranger who issued it).

And this year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of my first journey to Cape Cod. This narrow arm of land flexing eastward of Boston has become a very special place to me. Visits here are now an annual affair anxiously anticipated as the summer grows near. I may have grown old, but traveling to this wonderful place has not.

It all began in the summer of 1961 when our boy scout troop leader decided to institute a camping trip that went above and beyond our normal monthly ones to the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania areas. This was to be our Great Adventure Trip, and our first destination would be Cape Cod.

Mr. Harriman, a robust former Navy man, carried this excursion off like a mission. We bussed it up to our center of operations, a campground in Nicholson State Park, by itself a fantastic taste of the Cape. From there, we participated in all manner of activities. Of course there were the usual cooking out and hiking and fishing, but the Cape had special twists to offer. I was not a beach kid even though I was born and bred in New Jersey, so fun in the sun, sand, and surf was extra special in the natural environment of the National Seashore, unsullied by honky-tonk boardwalk interferences. Mr. Harriman had a connection at the Coast Guard station in Chatham, and my memories are still vivid of our ride on an amphibious vehicle called a Duck to a beach where I had my first exposure to the prehistoric-looking and fascinating horseshoe crab. Between the natural beauty of the park, dunes, beach, and my new, exciting experience of the ocean, I was sold. This is a place I wanted to come back to.

And come back I have, countless times over the ensuing years. People sometimes ask why I spend five hours in the car to drive to Cape Cod when the Jersey shore is close at hand. After all, a beach is a beach, isn’t it? Well, no. The Atlantic Ocean meets the sandy coast in both places, but there the similarity ends. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Jersey shore, which has its own unique flavor, including some personal favorite spots. It’s that their character is entirely different, and it is the character of the Cape that draws me back. The character of which I speak is a combination of laid-back New England charm, a variety of attractions and activities in close proximity, and natural vistas dominated by the influences of the sea. It seems to me that there is something here for everyone.

By no means am I a shopper, but I actually enjoy my wife’s stops at the many flea markets, antique shops, and thrift stores on the Cape. Meandering amongst the treasures and junk reveals a rich source of assorted oddities of Americana, both humorous and historic. People-watching at places such as the Wellfleet Flea Market is well worth the $2.00 admission.

lobster roll, Sesuit Harbor Cafe

The Cape is also a gastronomic delight, especially if you like seafood. Everyone develops their own personal favorites after a few visits; clam chowder and fried clams at Arnold’s, a lobster dinner at the Lobster Claw, specialty fish dishes at the Brewster Fish House, and lobster rolls at the Sesuit Harbor Cafe happen to be mine. Some ice cream from Cobies, and the evening is complete.

Exercise comes easily here and in many enjoyable forms. There is kayaking in the tranquil ponds or the calm estuaries along the coast. Bike riding is safe and pleasurable along the picturesque miles of bike paths. Hiking on nature trails or simply strolling along quiet byways or the wide expanse of tidal flats at low tide on the bay shore fills many a contented hour. For the more adventurous, surfing and sailing opportunities abound.

One isn’t limited to lying on a beach blanket, for there is no shortage of things to do here. Small museums of all sorts are to be found virtually anywhere, as are places of historical interest such as the site of the first encounter between the Pilgrims and Indians, Marconi’s first transAtlantic wireless transmission station, or the Kennedy family compound. Depending on one’s interest, there are all manner of small diversions and discoveries. Book stores, the real kind, thrive, from The Yellow Umbrella in Chatham to Herridge Books in Wellfleet to Provincetown Bookstore to the grandaddy of them all, the sprawling barn-like Parnassus Book Service in Yarmouthport. Visit the offbeat Edward Gorey House. Stop at the Atlantic Spice Company in Truro, if even just to inhale the myriad aromas of all the spices of the world. Picnic in the shade of the trees and taste some local wine at the Truro Vineyard. Take a boat ride to Monomoy Island to see the hundreds of grey seals basking on the beach or frolicking in the surf. Bird watch in the salt marshes or along the dunes. Photograph lighthouses of all sizes, shapes, and colors from the majestic Highland Light to the squat Three Sisters. Day trip to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket by ferry. Drive up to Provincetown for a walk amidst Portuguese bakeries, street performers of all stripes, and flamboyant cross-dressers; book a whale watching expedition to see the leviathan in its habitat; steep in the burgeoning art or poetry scene.

But most of all, behold the majestic beauty in the places where salt water meets sand: the miles of dune-lined beaches of the National Seashore, each different in its own way with pounding surf and passing seal heads bobbing up to curiously watch the beachgoers and “talking rocks” rattling in the changing tides, or the gentle bay beaches, perfect for small children to splash about or chase scuttling sand crabs or build sand castles. At the end of the day, witness the glorious celebration of this oceanside existence, the sunset, with favorite beaches to which travelers and locals alike return — Skaket, First Encounter, Rock Harbor. And as the sun goes down in a changing kaleidoscope of yellows, oranges, and reds against the darkening blue sky and dusk turns to night, my thought is always the same.

This is a place I want to come back to.

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My Tragic Love Affair with Baseball

August 15, 2011

When I was a kid, I had a crazy mad love affair with baseball. This was the 1950s when baseball truly was America’s Pastime. Growing up in New Jersey, I became a huge Yankee fan (somewhat of an act of treason to half my family who were from Brooklyn and thus Dodger fans). Though I never went to see a game in the  stadium, I listened to them faithfully on the radio and watched on Channel 11 (for free!) once we finally got a TV. The voice of Mel Allen was as familiar to me as that of any in my own family.

Yes, I was the most diehard of Yankee fans back then. And what a time to be one of those. Mickey Mantle in the outfield, Yogi Berra behind the plate, Whitey Ford on the mound, and Casey Stengel in the dugout. The names go on and on, even in the supporting cast, from the clean-cut Bobby Richardson at second to the hulking Moose Skowran at first to the diminutive but effective Luis Arroyo in the bullpen. Man, what a team, all heroes in the eyes of so many twelve year olds like me.

Aside from being a fan, I was an avid player, or at least I fancied myself as one, never having actually been on a single organized team. However, my neighbor Julius Alberici and I would head out to the softball diamond across the street from my house at Memorial Field in Bergenfield and play two man baseball for hours on end during the hot days of summer vacation. Since I lived right there and Julius just a half block down the nearest side street, it was an easy task to meet at the drop of a Yankee cap.

Rules were established as we went along to accommodate our lack of manpower. One of us would be up at bat, hitting the ball from a toss of our own hand. The other would be in the field playing a modified deep shortstop. The ball had to be hit between third base (usually a piece of wood or cardboard found in the area or, in desperate times, a rock) and a line arbitrarily scratched in the infield dirt three quarters of the way to second base. Ground balls caught were outs. If the ball was hit in the air over the head of the fielder, it would be scored according to its depth, force, and placement, usually after a great deal of debate. Anything hit beyond the weeping willow tree down field just outside the left field line was an automatic home run after, of course, the mandatory argument over whether or not it was deep enough. Squabbling, after all, was a major part of these games. Now, it would seem to be an easy task to get a hit since the batter was basically in total control, but our skill level was such that this was not the case. There was even the occasional strikeout, much to the red-faced chagrin of the batter,  accompanied by gales of laughter from the fielder.

We would play all morning until hunger beckoned us to lunch. After a quick sandwich, we returned to the park. Games of one sort or another (we had several variations on this theme) would continue either until the supper calls of my mother from our front stoop or one of us got so angry about some outrageous call by the other that we’d stomp off in a huff. The next day, however, would always find us back. The two of us progressively turned a darker and darker shade of brown as the summer wore on, partly from the dirt accumulated in layers from the dusty diamond and partly from the continuous sun exposure to our already predisposed Italian skin.

This continued for several summers through the heart of my Yankee fandom until three critical incidents occurred. The first was an argument of monumental proportions — I don’t remember the reason — that caused an irreparable rift in my friendship with Julius. The second was the arrival of Bobby Ackerman in my life. Bobby lived outside my immediate neighborhood, basically making him a foreigner at that time — very exotic. He was also a tougher kid than Julius, which of course in sixth grade made him way cool. He and I started hanging out more, and that put the squeeze on Julius in the best buddy race.

The third was when my beloved Yankees broke my heart (and my bank). The year was 1960, and the Yanks, as usual, found themselves in the World Series. They would be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates! How could we lose? So sure was I that my always dependable Bombers would emerge victorious that I placed a major bet with my parents on the series. I had every penny of my hard-earned paperboy money riding on this baby. But not to worry, I thought, this was a sure thing.

I was incredulous, to say the least, when it came down to the seventh and final game, one that will live in Yankee infamy, the game when tragedy would strike the soul of this young Yankee fan. First, there was the grounder to short, a sure double play ball if there ever was one, that took a bad hop with the ball striking Tony Kubek’s Adam’s apple instead of his trusty glove. Then, doom; the dagger to the heart in the form of the light-hitting Bill Mazeroski’s home run. Final score: Pirates 10, Yankees 9.

It was all over. I felt like I had been betrayed by a trusted friend. I couldn’t bear the shame of this defeat, especially in the face of the teasing I was forced to endure in my own home. I was broke and broken. Baseball became a source of bitterness, and since I was no longer playing the game myself because of my change in friends, it grew more and more distant. Julius moved to Queens. I moved on to Junior High School. As time went on, I developed other sports interests, and my hours of baseball were replaced by pickup games of touch (which sometimes turned into tackle) football at Memorial Field. Disillusionment turned into dispassion, and to this day, when I see the excitement of current friends and family over a Yankee game, there isn’t even a flicker left inside me. As happens with love, when your heart is broken, it heals in time, and there are new loves. So it is with baseball. So play on, Derek Jeter. Collect that giant pay check, A-Rod. I don’t begrudge any fan his or her joy. But take care, because heartbreak may be just around the corner.

So, who did you say the Phillies just acquired?