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October 25, 2013

Brains but no backbone


The Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy also includes a public aquarium. (One of the features was an electric ray in a petting tank. You couldn't get away with that in the US.) We had a large octopus in one of the display tanks who disappeared one night. The catwalks we used to feed the display animals were simply a set of boards laid over the tops of the tanks.

When we went searching, we found sucker marks drying on the boards and followed them. The octopus had gone past the dogfish tank (dogfish love to eat octopus) past the moray eel tank (morays also find octopus tasty), past the sea anemone tank (pretty but inedible) and dropped into the crab display where he reposed on a pile of empty crab shells radiating pleasure and satisfaction.

Many people don't realize that an octopus can clearly show its emotion. It is relatively easy to tell when an octopus is happy, sick, scared, curious or even horny by the texture and color of its skin, which it can control almost instantaneously.

After a few similar incidents, we moved this guy to a large tank in the common area of the research facility where he became a pet.

For those of you who may still doubt the intelligence of an octopus, let me continue. Our new pet loved being fed by hand. He also liked to grab my arm to get lifted out of the water and taken for a walk. They can survive cheerfully in the open air for longer than you might think.

His favorite game was to watch the door to see who came into his area. Octopods have extraordinarily good vision. If a stranger entered, he would quietly ease himself up and slightly over the edge of the tank (it was open at the top) and wait for his opportunity. Then he would use his siphon to jet a stream of cold seawater 15 - 20 feet to douse the unwary intruder. Then he dropped back into his tank an display the strong colors and hornlike skin protruberances that were his equivalent of giggling.

October 24, 2013

Food From Hell

I worked in one restaurant for about six months. I was not very happy with the owner's methods. He had a black market deal going on with a food supplier salesman who would bribe the rest of us to keep our mouth's shut by bringing us specialty food items.

The owner's favorite purchase was frozen processed turkey breast. He liked it because it was cheap, he could buy it in bulk and its flavor was easily disguised. If you ordered a tuna salad sandwich what you got was 50% tuna and 50% turkey.

The biggest travesty was the "lobster roll" according to the menu "succulent chunks of Maine lobster in homemade mayo." In actuality it was a product called "Sea Legs" which was essentially processed fish and texturized soy flavored with lobster juice and dyed red along one edge to give the appearance of lobster, mixed with chunks of turkey dosed with paprika to match the visual effect, mixed with old chopped celery and industrial mayo.

I needed the job. My kids were hungry.

Then came the middle of summer. During a parade a float went out of control knocking down a power line and blacking out downtown for two days.

When we reopened, the inside of the refrigerators were like ovens. I started to dump the tuna, chicken, egg and lobster salads into the trash. The owner stopped me and told me that we could just mix fresh stuff with the warm and no one would be able to tell the difference. Put it back he said, or you're fired. I took off my apron.

Three weeks later he was cited for a dozen or so cases of food poisoning.

Yankee virtues

I've lived and traveled all over the world, but mostly I have been a resident of one or another of the New England states. I have been lucky enough to have met some people with the old yankee outlook on things.

There is much about true yankees that others consider insular and anachronistic ... what tourist bureaus would call "colorful". But they are a dying breed and I am sorry about that. I am particularly sorry that they have been caricatured to the extent that some of the lessons that they could teach us have been mocked so much that we no longer see their virtues as anything other than quirks, fodder for jokes, or funny postcard content.

That is a shame, for at the base of the yankee character is the stuff that made this country great, and some of those attitudes, which to many seem quaint, could teach us how to stand tall again.

We laugh, for example, at the old story of the man who stops to ask a farmer for directions to a distant town. The farmer ponders several different routes then finally opines that "You can't get there from here." How dumb could this farmer be to not even know how to get to a nearby town? How foolishly self-centered not to realize that you can get anywhere from anywhere.

But, think about it. This farmer cannot give directions to the distant town because he doesn't need to know how to get there. His world, his life is the farm. For him, a town is a place to go only when you must, and only for a purpose. He'll go to the closest town to buy what he cannot make himself, and that is very little. His knowledge is centered on self-sufficiency. He does for himself and for his family and neighbors. He may not know the way to that town, but he knows how to tease a crop of corn out of rocky soil, how to sharpen an axe, how to build a house, how to dig a well.

To him, the fool is his questioner. The farmer would not start plowing, or framing a barn without a plan, but this traveler has set out on the road without one. Why do we consider the lost traveler the smart person, venturing out on the road unprepared? Why is the farmer foolish simply because the traveler has asked him a question the answer to which the farmer has no need to know?

But I seem to be drifting into a rant and there is one of these yankee characteristics that I want to talk about today. It has to do with my recent article on waste.

I rewrote an old story story a while ago about a miser who recycled his first wife's gravestone for use as a cooking stone. The story works because the degree of thrift seems to us to be outrageous. Perhaps it is. But then, with all due respect to Thomas Lynch and his brethren in the funeral industry, perhaps the profligate use of natural resources to memorialize a dead body is a bit outrageous as well.

Personally, I would prefer to be ground up, reduced to compost and used to fertilize a garden. As the Fugs once wrote in their delightful "Burial Waltz":
"Do not surround me with wreaths of flowers
nor place upon my body the signs of a fetish
nor crescent, cross, phallus nor sun.
But bury me in apple orchard
that I may touch your lips again."

As an historical researcher, I am grateful that my attitude is not common, gravestone and cemeteries are a major resource, but I understand the miser's point-of-view that the needs of the living trump the memorializing of the dead. When I see a cemetery, the neatly mowed lawns of a suburb, golf courses, parking lots, I think of waste, waste of resources, waste of opportunity. When I see 15-room McMansions built for a family of three and costing a small fortune to heat, or SUVs with gas tanks that cost a day's pay to fill, I think of the small rooms of old New England farmhouses that minimized the use of fuel.

And isn't it odd that our response to this waste is to computerize and add new devices to the mix, as if saving oil by building controls justifies adding the poisonous by-products of their manufacture into the eco-system. Why is it that we find the yankee virtue of thrift so hard to implement?

There's a magazine that I've seen, I think it's called "Real Simple" (I can't be bothered to check right now). I was leafing through it one day and found myself simultaneously amused and irritated that nearly every "simple" solution involved buying something. What an oddly perverse idea. Sadly, it's too common an idea. Our concept of fixing is to replace. Our idea of thrift is to add. We no longer make do.

I've been grumbling on for too long, so I'm going to bring this to a close with a few facts, a prediction and an anecdote.

In spite of the fact that new oil reserves have been discovered lately, the earth is a closed system and at some point we will have succeeded in moving it all up to the surface. This makes most people think of higher gas prices and alternative fuels. But think of this ...

Asphalt is a petroleum product. When the oil is gone, there won't be anything left to patch our roads for the alternative energy cars. Look around you. How much of what you see just in your room is made of plastic? Just the shopping bags you use to bring stuff home from the store take 12 million barrels of petroleum a year to make.

Think of this ...

Many medical devices, both high and low tech are made of plastic. disposable syringes, medical pumps, artificial hearts, eyeglasses, and on, and on ...

I predict that in the, not-too-distant, future there will be a new occupation. Perhaps it will happen, as a happy parallel to the gold rush of 1849, in 2049. The new 49ers will race to stake claims on landfills and dumps, where they will dig mines to extract the new gold ... all the plastic that we've so casually discarded for all these years. Most of us will pay small fortunes for medical devices made from the recycled plastic. The rich, of course, will have it molded into jewelry in order to show their status and ability to waste.

Now for the story.

Many years ago I lived in a small town here in New England. Town meetings were always a treat. At one of them there was a heated argument over the state of one particular road in a thickly settled area near a lake. The residents of that area were upset that the road had not been repaired in some years and that the pot holes were causing damage to their cars. Eventually the repairs were voted on and approved.

The next motion was an addendum to the first. A committee of parents many of whom were the same people that proposed the road repair, rose to request that the repairs should include speed bumps in order to prevent reckless drivers from endangering the children who walked along or played near the road.

The debate had barely begun when an older man got to his feet to be recognized. He was one of the oldest citizens of the community and had lived there all his life. The room quieted with respect.

"It seems to me," he said, "that we're talking about spending money on a problem that has solved itself."

When the vote was taken again. the road repair was revoked.

October 23, 2013

The Attention Deficit Difference

ADD is short for Attention Deficit Disorder. I have a problem with that term ... I don't consider it a disorder. I call it "Hunter" as opposed to "Farmer".

A farmer works methodically, step-by-step, to accomplish a predictable goal. Hunters wander about waiting for a disturbance in the patterns, a movement in the leaves, a color change, a rustle in the hedgerow.

Farmers tend to be ordinarily successful, hunters are either spectacular successes or total failures depending on the amount of discipline they can apply.

School is painful for hunters since it is aimed at farmers. Hunters get bored with the plodding and memorization. They are often pariahs since their skills cannot be easily quantified. They may do well on standardized tests, but their daily work will not predict this outcome. As a case in point, someone close to me went through high school with Ds and Fs, but achieved SAT scores of 700 in math and 750 in verbal.

Many hunters are omnivorous readers and autodidacts.

I finally figured out how my mind worked in mid-life. It was a revelation. My dependence on coffee, my love of rythmic music, my unproductive creativity all formed a clear picture.

It's good to know who and how I am. I don't spend time agonizing over the pain of being an "underachiever". I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam, as Popeye would say, and all-in-all what I yam is pretty damn good.

About the only good thing about the ADD terminology is that it gets me a prescription that helps when I need to stop being creative and start being productive. Since I limit the amount I take, it's a good thing I'm a fairly fast typist.

Hunters of the world arise, you have nothing to lose but your shame!

A Hard Roll

December 1993

The guilt had gotten to me. The guy in the wheelchair at North Station, the insistent quasimodos in Salvation Army uniforms tintinabulating at every street corner, the stocky old man in tattered jeans who sang to me, "I need some money, I need some money bad," had set me up.

Stoically, with my bland commuter face firmly unfocussed, I had passed by them all.  My hand in my pocket clutched my change to keep it from jingling.  I felt awful. I was a liar and a cheat and an ungenerous son-of-a-bitch, but I had made it through the gauntlet with enough money for a cup of coffee and a hard roll.

The coffee shop was steamy and friendly. They knew me and usually I joke around a bit with the ladies there.  This time I just smiled and grabbed my paper bag and left. I could see another panhandler on the corner so I cut through the alley to the next street and my office.

The building was still locked, but, as I got out my keys I suddenly remembered that I had a doctor's appointment this morning. I turned and headed for the subway. As I passed a doorway further down the street, Someone stepped out.  "Spare some change for a cup of coffee mister?"

Her timing was perfect. I handed her the paper bag and said, "I'll do better than that, you can have this coffee." She shrank back and wouldn't touch the bag. For a moment I thought she was frightened.  Then she said, "It's probably not black."

I laughed. "Yes it is," I said and handed her the bag again.  This time she took it and stepped backward into the doorway again as I headed down the steps to the Red Line. Suddenly I heard her voice again.

"Hey mister, didn't you get any butter for this hard roll."

October 22, 2013


I was walking in downtown Boulder a few days ago. I turned the corner from Pearl onto Broadway to find a panhandler sitting on the sidewalk cocooned in a blanket. It was odd that he didn't have some kind of container, and it took me a second to register his hand-lettered side of a cardboard box sign which read, "SMOKE YOUR POT WITH ME."

October 21, 2013


I ran a little late with today's post. There are some typos which I will fix tomorrow.

Halloween Night 1975

Halloween Night 1975
It was the fourth year of my first tour of duty as a Navy journalist. I had been assigned to handle public relations for a Navy Office in Milwaukee WI. This was a terrible decision by whoever it was who sent me there because my pay grade was so low that I couldn't afford to live there. I'll talk about that more in another post. But the critical part is that, by my third year there, I was living alone, my family having (temporarily) disintegrated.

I moved to a studio apartment near Lake Michigan. It was the first, and so far only, place I lived that had a Murphy bed. My money was short so I had to ration my socializing. Part of that rationing was to take advantage of the USO club. I could always get some coffee, conversation, and sometimes a free meal there.

The young ladies who staffed this USO Club were all young, attractive, and charming. They all liked me because unlike most of there clientele I had made it clear that I was not on the prowl. When I was there I became a kind of protector when other servicemen got too rambunctious and irritating.

I was sitting at a table there brooding into my coffe mug one afternoon when Rose came and sat down across from me. Rose was what my father would call a "pocket Venus". (Actually, that's not true, he would have said that she would be a good centerfold for Reader's Digest.) she was small with a lovely figure and masses of curly dark hair surrounding a sweetly pretty face with sparkling mischievous eyes.

I always liked talking to Rose, she was smart, witty, and charming. I smiled at her and she asked me if I was going to come to the USO Halloween Party. I shook my head, I didn't particularly enjoy the big parties.

"I wish you would," she said, "I need a date."

What could I say other than yes.

The problem was that the party was the following weekend and we had no costumes. The costume store in Milwaukee had been stripped to the walls by people with more forethought than us. Among the few things left were a brown, hooded monk's robe, sort of a Friiar Tuck thing, well-used and a bit ratty, and an emerald satin 18th century-looking ball gown. Rose tried on the dress and it fit beautifully, so I bought the robe and rented the dress and in a fit of ingenuity bought an odd selection of make-up.

On Halloween afternoon, we met at her house and concocted our plans as we got ready. We were going to do a little scenario at the party. Rose had a pair of plastic fangs, and I had bought some make-up for her that glowed green under black light. (I knew that they were planning to have black lights scattered around the club.) Her fangs glowed too. I'll save the details of my make-up for the reveal.

So when we arrived at the club, she was a fetching and sexy vampire girl and I was a monk with his hood pulled down to shadow and conceal the face completely. A large wooden cross hung from a cord around my neck. In one hand I had a huge mallet I'd borrowed from a carpenter friend and in the other was a wooden spike.

As we'd planned, we spent some time playing hide and seek with me chasing her about the club trying to spike her (not a euphemism). Eventually I started acting exhausted and leaned on something. Everyone started watching as Rose crept up behind me and suddenly pounced. She stuck her head under my hood and bit (actually kissed) my neck before rushing off.

I did a transformational type of shudder and doubled over as if cramped, then stood and pulled my hood back.

I had used liquid latex and, stretching my skin, painted it on and let it dry, when I stopped pulling the skin tight the latex bunched up to look like a mass of wrinkles. I'd used black wax to make all but my canine teeth invisible, and applied two realistic puncture wounds to my throat.

There was quite a substantial and enjoyable gasp from our audience and Rose and I got a nice round of applause.

October 20, 2013

Halloween 2009

It was a beautiful night last night. Very mild but with a high wind which sent the leaves skittering across the road. It was a perfect night for Halloween, even in its denatured, passive yet sugar-buzzed shadow of its former self.

We live in a well-favored area, a cul-de-sac sandwiched between a church and an elementary school in the lower scale area of a very well-to-do town. A safe neighborhood. One of the town's police officers lives five houses down.

This morning my third grandchild (the first grandson) was born. This afternoon my wife left for Seattle to provide support for our daughter whose first child has just graduated to toddlerhood. I could not go with her for various reasons, so I was left as the sole distributor of the sealed, pre-packaged, glucose bombs.

Halloween in our town is tyrannically restricted to the period between 6pm and 8pm. I lit the candles in the five Jack O' Lanterns on our front steps, and as, dusk fell, settled down on the top step with an old basket filled with recognizably branded candy, a copy of Terry Pratchett's "Unseen Academicals", and a combination LED flashlight and laser pointer (removed from the possession of my oldest granddaughter who upon being told not to shine the laser into people's eyes, interpreted that as targeting instructions).

I have a full white-beard. I am also an overweight, genial gent, so it seemed somehow appropriate to confuse the little beggars by wearing a red shirt. Call it my version of "Let's Do the Time Warp Again".

The first arrivals were right at 6pm. The three kids from across the street. The two boys with light sabers, the little girl with an attempt at the cinnamon bun hairdo of Princess Leia. They politely dipped into the basket, giggled, thanked me and scampered away to where their mom and dad lurked in the shadows. I called after the kids to them to warn them about the red Halloween bug that nibbles on toes and deployed the laser pointer to make squiggly motions around their feet. They laughed and bashed it with their plastic weapons.

It was ten minutes before my next visitors. The woman next door escorting her daughter-in-law holding a baby in a lamb costume and a sweetly shy and silent three or four-year-old shepherdess. She didn't say anything no matter how much her escorts prompted her. I offered her the basket and she looked into its depths without moving. Then very carefully reached in and extracted a single small tube of malted milk balls and placed (not dropped) it in her bag.

"You are a very pretty shepherdess," I told her. She looked at me solemnly and nodded infinitessimally, confirming that I was capable of making reasonable judgments. Her escorts blathered apologies, still trying to get her to say something. I smiled at her and looked down, tacitly inviting her to look with me. I had the laser pointer's dot making circles in front of her. Then I made it climb up to her knee. She almost smiled, then turned imperiously and left, trailing her noisy escort behind.

It took about twenty minutes for my next visitors. A ragtag assemblage of middle-school boys in last-minute, low-concept costumes, stopped by and politely asked how much they could take. Grabbed their alotment and rushed of to the next house, leaving me bemused at how much their attempts at make-up resembled the Permanent Marker Bandits who achieved a sad fame last week.

A few minutes passed, then a colorful panoply of six middle-school girls resplendent in brilliant satins and velvets as princesses, ballerinas, tavern wenches, etc. came so that I could tithe for their beauty. Which I properly did. I politely called them ladies, which evinced a communal giggle.

Then, nearly and hour passed. I had almost decided to close up shop, When a young, tired-looking father appeared with his son in tow. The son was wearing a curiously undefinable costume. It seemed to be intended as some kind of animal, but the headpiece had been pulled back and it was impossible to identify.

I looked up the street and realized that most of the other porches were dark. This was going to be my last visitor so I helped the boy to a good selection. The father thanked me and they wandered off into the darkness. I blew out the candles in the pumpkins, turned out the light, and went inside.

We used to get so many kids here on Halloween, and so many ingenious and delightful costumes. Now they go to pre-programmed daytime events, or brightly lit malls, which use the smokescreen of community service to get in a marketing effort.

I've been left with a ton of candy. I dumped it in a bag so that my wife can have it when she comes home.

When I sat down in front of my computer to try to get a few hours of writing done, there was a message containing some pictures; the new baby looking ready to take on the world and his big sister dressed as a penguin. I looked at them for a while.

So, instead of working, I search Hulu for a scary movie, pour myself a Jameson's put my feet up on a document storage box and celebrate a quiet and now solitary Halloween.

October 18, 2013

A Penny is Passed

Apr 11, 2008

Springtime is the wrong season for a dog to die.
I know this. I said it about a week ago to Penny.

I was lying on the floor next to her for most of the day, holding her, masaging her legs, hoping that her inability to get to her feet was a cramp and not paralysis, comforting her through her obvious embarrassment at having to void bladder and bowels on the bed that she used in our bedroom closet.

I woke up that morning ready to plunge into a day of writing. My wife, Deni, was still asleep as I made myself some coffee. Penny usually gets up with me and barks to be let out into the backyard, so when I didn\'t hear her, I left the coffee perking and went back into the bedroom. She was awake, lying on her side as usual but her eyes were alert. I knew something was wrong immediately. When I thought back later, I realized that when she saw me, there was no motion at all from her tail.

She lifted her head and neck attempting to twist her legs under her and get to her feet, but she had no control of her body.

Let me back up a minute.

Penny was my youngest daughter\'s dog, but for the last 6 years or so, she has been my companion. She is a small white English setter with large round spots that were the source of her name. She came to us as a puppy. a tiny thing that wanted so much to be with us that she would bark and whine until we helped her up onto the sofa.

She was a runner. She\'d dash across the backyard like a streak of doggie lightning in pursuit of squirrels, neighbor cats, birds, and any other invaders real or imaginary. Her favorite game was to chase a basketball as it was kicked across the backyard. I called her "The Hound of the Basketballs". With smaller balls the game played was not so much \'fetch\' as \'just try to get it away from me slowpoke\'.

She was a runner. She was an investigator. She was hard to take for walks since she would always be straining at the end of the leash trying to follow a scent trail, or seeing just one more movement deep in the shrubbery that she had to identify. I\'m sure that some would say that we didn\'t train her properly, but I have always valued curiousity above obedience. Penny may have half-strangled herself trying to pass her limits, but at least she tried.

She featured in many of my essays about nature. She was my companion on walks, on the porch, in the yard, and as I worked at my desk. She\'d curl up at my feet as I pounded away at the keys, every so often barking or whining me away from the desk for a romp.

She got yelled at a lot too: when she barked incessantly in the middle of the night, when she whined at the dinner table until Deni (the soft touch) would sneak her a tidbit from her plate, when, bored with her own food she shouldered the cat aside and feasted on Tuna Delite.

She got cuddled. She was afraid of thunder, of sticks, of water sprays, of other dogs, and of snaky things like ropes or belts. We could always tell when a storm was rolling in ... Penny would try to dig her way through the bathtub or cram herself into the smallest space whether it was a kitchen cupboard or under a bed.

She loved car rides. I\'d tease her by saying "Want to go for a ride in the car?" and she would be panting and whining at the door before I even finished the sentence. She rode in the back seat with her head out the window. If I was running errands, as I walked into the store or library, she\'d start barking foe me to come back. Sometimes she\'d continue for so long that I'd have to cut the errands short.

She loved bones, much prefering them to dog biscuits. She was fastidious about her food. There was only one type of dogfood she liked, and she would actually sort out pieces that she didn\'t want from the bowl and pile them to one side, but she wasn\'t as picky about other things she ate. She liked peanut butter sandwiches, butter, anything that had been on a plate on the table (I once watched her steal asparagus, another time found that she\'d raided the trashcan for artichoke leaves), she also liked eating the occasional flower from the garden.

Her reckless eating habits may have hastened the end. Last summer she ate a large bee and, later that day, went into a series of full-bore grand mal seizures. She frothed and drooled, her legs spasming and her eyes bewildered at her body\'s betrayal. Deni and I bundled her into a blanket and drove to the only place open, a distant animal hospital. She had come out of it by then, but was in the post-epileptic stage of constant walking and fear. They warned us at the hospital of likely permanent neurological damage and that the seizures might recur.

She had trouble with her back legs from then on. She could still run, but it was an effor for her to climb stairs and once again we had to help her up onto the couch so that she could be near us. She went from sleeping on the couch to sleeping on an old feather bed on the floor of our bedroom closet. Then came the day last week.

Throughout the course of the day, I lived in hope, I gave her some chunks of beef from some beef stew and some of the liquid. I had to use a shallow bowl and tilt it sharply to let her get at it since she could not raise herself up enough otherwise. I lay next to her, massaging her legs and hoping it would pass.

It was when she tried, desperately to get to her feet, and first whined and then moaned ... a sound I had never heard her make ... a sound of such distress, that it forced me to think. Here was a friend of mine, someone whose entire life is about movement. What could I do for her? It wasn\'t as if she were partially mobile. Except for spasms and quivers she was immobile below the neck. There was no option for scooter wheels orother partial mobility solutions. As humans we have other resources, we can internalize, creating a mental alternative to the freedom of movement.

It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I am still tearing up as I write about it. Deni and I took the corners of the featherbed and lifted her up to the bed, where, once again, I wrapped Penny in a blanket and carried her to the car. I drove as my wife held Penny. The vet was waiting for us.

Springtime is the wrong season for a dog to die. Winter is finally over and the grass is coming up. The snow is gone, the peepers are back. Wildlife intrusions into the backyard will be more frequent.

It is a week later and I am still putting food in her bowl, watching where I step, reacting to the barks of other dogs in the neighborhood. It is a week later and I\'ve decided to leave the faded, half-deflated basketballs where they are under the tree and up against the weathered fence.

It is a week later and I just realized that I have my feet tucked under my chair so as to give Penny more space under the desk.

I blog with BE Write

October 17, 2013

Penny Recovers a Bit

5 September 2007

So there's a combination of bad news and good news. Which I suppose is not a surprise since nearly everything is.

The best news is that the seizures have stopped and that Penny seems to be returning to her old self. The ambivalent news is that the vets have no idea what caused them. There seem to be no easy answers. There is no treatable condition to be found. It is unlikely to be epilepsy and more likely to be either "good news" some kind of an anomaly perhaps brought on by ingesting something poisonous (she does seem to have a taste for bumblebees) or "bad news" some kind of brain lesion or tumor which is likely "in a dog her age, to be untreatable or perhaps a stroke.

It is now just a question of waiting and hoping that it does not recur.

There was a wonderful moment yesterday though. Penny had been unsteady on her hind legs all morning. She spent much of her time sleeping under my desk. I was happy about that since it meant that I could write and, at the same time, keep an eye on her to make sure she was doing well.

About 1:30 I had a visit from a friend of mine, a fellow storyteller named Tony Toledo. Tony is the only person I know for whom coffee is entirely superfluous. He is a superannuated poster child for ADD. Okay ... I'm kidding a bit, but he is dynamic, unfailingly cheerful, and has an infectiously bubbling personality. I find it difficult to be in the same room with him and remain melancholic.

Apparently, so does Penny. She literally bounced out from under the desk standing straight and firm on her legs, her tail wagging like an overclocked metronome.

It made his visit a double joy.

That seemed to be a turning point for her. She's still a little unsteady but manages the steps to the backyard and cheerfully barks at the squirrels and jays.

I'm going to have to get Tony to visit more often. Maybe I'll get him to sign one of his publicity photos and hang it on the wall in the rogues gallery of my heroes.

But I'll hang it lower so that Penny can see it.

October 16, 2013

Penny Eats a Bee

Today I spent a long time playing with Cleo, my oldest son's dog. She is a tall caramel colored standard poodle with incredible patience and love for her owners, including my granddaughter who occasionally insists in dressing the dog up in dancing tights and tutu.

Chasing Cleo around the yard and playing tug o' war with each of us on an end of a frayed rope, reminded me of how much I miss our dog, Penny.

The next three posts are sequential and were written as things happened.

24 September 2007

It has been a long night.

Penny is the white with brown spots English setter, that is my fairly constant companion. When I sit on the back porch, she sits with me. When I write she lies under the desk by my feet. She only deserts me when my wife, Deni, is knitting. Then she curls up on the sofa next to the balls of yarn. Yesterday, while we sat on the back porch she ate a bee. She looked irritated for a moment but seemed fine.

About 8 pm I was working on some essays when my son, Avi, rushed in and said, "Something's wrong with Penny."

I jumped up and hurried out to the living room where Avi and my wife were desperately trying to soothe Penny. She was in the midst of a massive grand-mal seizure. Her tongue was lolling out, thick froth drooling from her mouth, and her legs spasmodically kicking as if she were running. Her bladder had let go, her eyes blank. I jumped in to cradle and comfort her, but it was obvious that she was not registering anything but the terror of being trapped in a body that was betraying her.

It lasted a long time ... at least 10 minutes. When the seizure finally passed, I was soaked with drool and urine, but so grateful that her body had calmed. Deni, in the meantime, had been on the phone with the vet. It was after pm on a Sunday, and she had been told that the nearest emergency facility open was more than 20 miles away.

Penny wanted to get to her feet, but they wouldn't stay under her. She seemed desperate to move. I figured that the spasms had affected her motor control and had probably cramped her muscles as well. I picked her up and carried her to the car. We left Avi at the house and Deni sat in the back soothing our dogher as we zipped along the dark winding country roads.

Penny loves to ride in the car and she calmed down a bit and even fell asleep.

At the vet's I carried her in, but she seemed to want to be on her feet. I set her down and snapped a leash on her collar. There were other animals there so I kept the leash short as they took the intake information.

Penny kept walking into things and straining at the leash.

Finally we were put in an examination room. We waited for ten minutes. Penny seemed desperate to leave, which was unusual for her. she usually likes trips to the vet. She was constantly straining at the leash and getting it tangled around the furniture.

We figured that she was upset about the other animals so my wife went to stand in the hallway to wait for the vet while I let Penny roam at will in the small room. She kept circling the room obsessively keeping close to the walls and getting her head jammed into the corners. I realized that she was, at least temporarily, blind.

The vet finally came about twenty minutes later. She confirmed my assumption of grand mal, told us what the probable causes were in a dog her age, which included diabetes, thyroid problems and brain lesions. She said that the walking and blindness were Post Ictal behaviors. She suggested that we leave her overnight. They would put her on a valium drip and monitor her.

Worried about the delays we had already seen, we decided against that. She said she'd give us some valium suppositories in case there was another seizure and left.

Deni stayed to wait for the medication and to pay the bill. I took Penny out to the parking lot to let her walk and get her out of an environment that was clearly disturbing to her.

We waited outside for at least another half hour before the vet finally got back to my wife with the medication, reinforcing the correctness of our decision to bring Penny home. We drove home. Penny quietly dozing.

When we got back to the house at 10:30, we settled her back on the couch in a nest of blankets. Deni sat next to her and listened to the television while I went into my office to do a little more work. Or at least that's what I though I would do. Instead I popped Google open and started searching about dog seizures. I found that there was a lot that the vet had not told us about.

The length of the seizure made it a "Status Epilecticus" and is potentially life-threatening, and there are so many potential causes that they fill an entire page. Eating a bee was listed.

Deni turned off the TV after a while and went in to get ready for bed. Suddenly we heard Penny's claws tip-tapping along. She had gotten off the sofa and walked down the hallway to the bedroom where the dog bed she sleeps on normally is. This cheered us up. She seemed to be getting back to normal.

Penny curled up on her bed, Deni curled up on ours with a book, and I went back to write a little more.

About midnight I called it quits. I went in and got ready for bed, checking Penny who was sleeping soundly. I read for a short time until exhausted I turned out the lights.

I woke instantly at about 2:30 am, as did Deni. Even in the dark we could tell that Penny was having another seizure. I dropped to the floor next to her and cradled her while Deni got the suppositories.

Let me tell you about these "suppositories" ... These were not glycerine insert them and let 'em melt types. They consisted of a small glass bottle with a sealed cap filled with liquid a syringe, and a tube for insertion. The first one slipped out of Deni's hands as she tried to get the cap off and spilled its contents on the bed. The second one went better ... she got the syringe filled and stuck the insertion tube on the end, greased it with K-Y and lifted Penny's tail.

I did my best to hold her still, but a sudden spasm yanked the tube of the syringe and half the contents spurted over her fur and the dog bed. I hoped it would be enough, we only had one dose left. We took her back out to the couch where it was easier to hold her.

The seizure wouldn't stop. Finally Deni filled the last syringe and we managed to get it all in. Suddenly I remembered something I had read earlier that night and sent her out to the kitchen for an ice pack. I put it on Penny's back near the base of her rib cage. Slowly, the spasms started to decrease in intensity.

Deni and I have been switching off since then, sitting next to Penny and holding her. She has tried to walk, but cannot. her forelegs seem fine but her back legs can't seem to function properly.

I just went out to check on them. They are lying on the couch, one on each end, sound asleep. It is 7 am.

In an hour the office of Penny's regular vet will open. I hope for the best but dread what they will say.

October 15, 2013

Walter Pitts an introduction

This post is undated since it covers a long period of time.

I've was thinking today about Walter Pitts. Walter was a boyhood friend of my father's  and became an important influence in mine. There are still many books in my personal library with his signature on the flyleaf.

  Walter was a mathematician of enormous talent but little academic provenance. Many people think that if it were not for the nurturing of my father and Warren McCulloch, Walter would have disappeared into obscurity and sometimes I wonder if he would have preferred that.

Okay, the story I heard is that Walter was in his mid teens when a group of Chicago toughs chased him. he took refuge in the library where he picked up a volume on mathematics by the British scientist Alfred North Whitehead. As he waited for his tormentors to leave, he made notes on errors that he found in the book which he then sent in a letter to the author. A short time later re received an invitation to co-author Whitehead's next book.

At this point I have to mention that my father was an inveterate storyteller and I am certain that there must be dozens of variants of this story floating around out there. This version is the one I remember being told.

I'm not going to go ito details of the Pitts mythology as proposed by my father, You can check the Wikipedia articles on both of them and read the emotional debacle of the early cyberneticists in "The Dark Hero of the Information Age".

  There's an easier way to get you most of the way to knowing Walter. The central character in the movie "Pi" (no! not the one with the tiger) is eerily similar in many ways; obsessive, anti-social, a bit paranoid, and self-destructive.

I loved the man. He loved to travel and take photographs, but most of all, at least from my memory, he loved to hike and climb mountains.

Remember the books that I told you had his name on the flyleaf? Almost all of them are on mountaineering, exploring, and climbing. That's the Walter that I remember best, and I wanted to give you a bit of introduction because he will be turning up from time to time in these memoirs.

Getting back to work

I apologize. Yesterday was the first time I missed a daily post. I was a little tired and the prospect of dealing with the tiny keyboard of the iPad seemed too daunting.

That's not really true. I was in the middle of yesterday's post, I was tired, it is a post about something that has distressed me for more than 40 years. I have the house to myself this morning and it is a gray cold day in Boulder, so I will dedicate myself to finishing and publishing the post.

Today is remarkable for its peace. I woke late and granddaughter Amelia had left for school and her mother Lindsey for work.  I decided to take a shower. It was a delight to get into the shower and find a sign taped to the drain that said, "I EAT PEOPLE." I think some of my strange sense of humor is rubbing off on Amelia.

As I write this there are squirrel's scampering along the top of the fence outside the window, causing Cleo the standard poodle to get up from hr station at my feet and grumble warnings at them through the glass. I have a cup of miso soup steaming next to me. It's a good day to write.

October 13, 2013

In Boulder October 2013

I am not posting from my usual venue north of Boston, Instead I am sitting at a dimly lit table with a glass of whiskey (don't worry Mo, it's the Maker's Mark not the Sazerac) laced with fatigue in Boulder, CO.

I have been in transit for a good portion of the day (starting at 0400 EST), and playing with my oldest grandchild, Amelia, for most of the rest of it. I read her half of a chapter of Harry Potter (she's in 2nd grade) tucked her in and came downstairs.

I'm here for two weeks, visiting my oldest son's family and leaving my home in the capable hands of my youngest son.

I have no real post for today. I am weary and unwilling to write or even edit something previously written. All I'll say today is that my son married well, my oldest grnddaughter is a treasure and it's time for bed.

I'll pick up the thread tomorrow.

October 12, 2013

A question for readers

Should I have a special tag to indicate items that potentially provide too much information?

I haven't done this yet for fear of my blog turning into something similar to the first copy of Lady Chatterly's Lover I saw with a broken spine, heavy underlinings, and dog-eared pages at all the juicy parts.

However, since many of you will be using this memoir to show your children how a life is well-lived, or as an object lesson in wasted potential, I am willing to provide a sorting tage so as to avoid inadvertently compromising their mores.

As it is said, "the mores the merrier."

Fringe Benefits

As regards the post "Babe Magnet" I will say that back in 1969 at Washington University in St. Louis, the prominence of my father in the scientific community had an unexpected benefit.

He came to St. Louis to give a lecture, and one of my instructors, a zaftig female graduate student, provided me with a single night of passion in exchange for an introduction to him.

Had I known that it was a transaction up front, I probably would have felt better about the experience, but it was not until the following morning that I was advised of the implicit verbal contract. As it was, a good deal of the joy drained away rather quickly.

OTOH, I apologize to my children for not having achieved the level of fame that would let them receive similar benefits. Actually ... no I don't.

October 11, 2013

Undeveloped Critical Powers

My second earliest memory is an odd one. Odd because, even at this distance in time, I still remember what my thought processes were. I think I must have been about 4 or 5.

There were these chocolate candies. I knew they were chocolate because they were almost the same color and they were just a little larger than Good & Plenty candies. The problem was that I wasn't allowed to have any. My parents had some everyday and they seemed to really pleased with themselves afterward. I figured they had to be really good if they were so selfish as to not share them with me.

So one day when all was quiet, I got up into the cabinet and got the jar. I think I hid behind the sofa or someplace similar. I unscrewed the cap and smelled it. It didn't smell like candy, it smelled more like burning plastic. That wasn't going to stop me.

I reached in and pulled out one of the maroon "candies" and bit it. It was squishy. Then all of a sudden it popped. There was something yellow and goopy inside and it splattered a bit. Even at the time I remember thinking that it looked like pus.

There had to be something good about it though ... so I took a fistful and swallowed them. I think I probably repeated that a couple of times. It tasted terrible and the "candies" got stuck in my throat.

My parents found me, wherever it was I was hiding with an empty bottle of the old maroon gelatin vitamin pills. That's where my memory ends, but I have been told that the rushed me to the hospital. I have a fragmentary memory of a tube going down my nose so that they could pump all those vitamins out of my stomach.

It certainly was not my finest hour.

Getting some of the earliest stuff out of the way

I was born on the 26th of July, 1948 at Henrotin Hospital in Chicago to a psychiatrist from an orthodox Ukrainian Jewish and very musically talented family, and a beautiful country girl from the wilds of New Jersey whose ancestry included Irish, Prussian, Russian and Spanish.

The story goes that my aunt was an entertainer in Chicago and my father had a crush on her. When her little sister came to town to visit, my aunt tried to dump my father by pointing him at my mother. IIRC within a couple of months they were married.

There was, of course a tremendous uproar, but my father was good at arguing and managed to persuade the rabbis that all was in accordance with talmudic law, it being wartime and there being a easement allowing one to marry one of "the enemy".

In addition to appeasing the rabbis, my mother did her best to be friendly with my father's family. At one point, she says, she invited my grandmother Fanny to lunch at a department store restaurant (Marshall Fields' I think) and, blissfully unaware of the rules, ordered herself a ham and cheese sandwich. I am sure that she will be correcting details of this.

My mother says that when I was born, Fanny sat on the side of my mother's hospital bed visibly and pointedly counting how many months it had been since the marriage, and doubtless disappointed that the math worked out in my mother's favor.

Shortly thereafter my father got a job at Manteno State Hospital in Illinois where I spent the first few years of my life being tended by patients.

My first available memory is of a large room and a large central table with adults sitting around it. I have no idea where or when this was. I remember that I was in a red, pedal-driven firetruck with a missing ladder. I also remember that I couldn't make the pedals work properly so I was pushing it along with my feet. I remember circumnavigating the table without anyone paying attention and exiting.

A Word of Warning

As you have probably guessed from the previous post, I am generous with my opinions. Therefore you should keep in mind that I may wax poetic or curmudgeonly at a moment's notice. When a post has a date then you can assume that it's an event, not some random despairing rant, ode to joy, or nature walk. I will try to tag posts appropriately, but I have failed in the past.

October 10, 2013

Thoughts on an Offer

There's no historical date on this post since the catalyst occurred today.

My son and his friend needed cream for their coffee, so I went down to the local market to get some. I often forget to pick it up when grocery shopping since I don't eat meat or dairy. I walked into the store and was accosted by a gentleman doing a promotion for one of the local newspapers.

We both had graying beards and for some reason started chatting about the care and feeding of face fur. I mentioned the fact that the small black cheek patches in the otherwise snowy drifts of my cheeks were what kept me from applying to work as a Santa at Christmas. He told me that I shouldn't worry about it, his beard was darker than mine and he'd been doing it for a couple of years.

So now I have a dilemma, does my need for a well-paid, if demanding, job outweigh the facts that I am a vegan atheist of Jewish heritage who doesn't really like the holiday season? Would I be able to limit my snark, would I be able to maintain my sanity?

I don't want to seem Scroogean, I like the idea of celebrating a holiday of life and light in the dead, dark of winter. The traditions are wonderful, and I'm enough of a language and mythology buff to take great delight in the way the holiday has borrowed so heavily from non-Christian celebration.

But look ...

We spend an entire month being exhorted, cajoled, tempted, flattered, tricked, hassled and abused on all sides. We drown in the pressure of trying to balance 'quid' and 'quo'. For most of us, our lives are measured in currency. Each minute has a value. Like the sand in an hourglass, the days of our lives flow as coins through our weakening fingers until we have not only spent our past but mortgaged our future.

And the soundtrack, carols interspersed with sentimental schlock that would even make a commercial C&W DJ gag. Is it 'the hap ... happiest time of the year'? Every time I walk into a mall or even a food market I am assaulted by audio that reminds me that people who aren't happy during this season are somehow flawed.

I can't help but think of the psychological warfare tactic that we used in the middle-east. We blasted rock music at them 24/7 knowing that the unremitting noise will weaken them. But here at home we use the same tactic of unremitting "joyful" noise to create remitting customers. What do we care if a few depressed or lonely people fall by the way, inundated by reminders of how they have failed. We're not surprised that the 'hap ... happiest' is also the 'su ... suicide' time of the year.

Hey! it's social Darwinism. Let's get all those misfits out of the gene pool. The rest of us will go out and buy our piece of yuletide euphoria, pay to find our Christmas bliss. And if we run out of money ... and credit ... well we'll just paste on a smile cut back on medical services for our parents and after-school activities for our kids. Then we'll go back out and buy some more.

Don't expect presents from me this year!

But, if you care to visit ... you can put your feet up by the fire, have a glass of eggnog or a snifter of brandy and we can tell stories of the light. You'll find no dead tree covered with tiny lightbulbs, but candles on the table and the scent of hot beeswax, no carols playing but perhaps Haydn's 'Lord Nelson Mass'.

So I must ask myself, can I be as curmudgeonly as I have just proved to be and still be able to perform the jolly if seditious duties of a Santa. I must get a glass of wine and weigh my wallet against my soul.

October 9, 2013

My Big Night in Revere

Written: 15 May 2005
Happened: c. 1984

Just north of Boston on Route 1 is an exit to Route 60 also known as Squire Road. If you live on the North Shore, this is the exit you will usually take to get to Logan Airport. About a mile to the east you hit the first of two rotaries. Just before you enter the maelstrom of traffic, you will see a Dunkin Donuts shop. It has only been there a short time. For several years the spot was abandoned. Before that it was the site of the Pewter Pot Family Restaurant one of a good-sized chain with colonial decor and a basic sandwich/steak/soup/muffin/breakfast menu.

They made good coffee, passable muffins and excellent clam chowder. The Revere site was tiny in comparison to most. It was a free-standing building with a dining room that could hold about 75. Cooking was done on a grill and prep area directly behind the cash register which faced the door. The side of the building facing Squire Road was mostly window.

Toward the back of the building were the dishwashing area, a walk-in reefer for produce, eggs, and prepped stuff and a walk-in freezer for meats. A door from this area led out to the side parking lot and the dumpsters.

I had a great crew, a good mix of young and veteran servers. The star waitress was a pretty Filipino, 'Cookie', who could have handled the entire floor by herself with one hand tied behind her back. The dishwasher was a young kid who had just started and was doing well. The cook whom I'll call Mark was huge. An immensely muscular 6'7 or more with shoulders as broad as some of the waitresses were tall.

I was in charge of the night shift. I came on duty at two to get people started on the post-lunch, pre-dinner clean-up and resupply. The dishwasher was catching up, the ladies were filling salts and wiping everything down, Mark was scraping the grill and I went down to the basement where we had dry storage, canned goods, the office and the safe. I reconciled the drawer Made sure that the money equaled the tape, put the surplus in the safe and took the drawer back up to the register.

As I walked past the door to the dumpsters I noticed it was propped open with an empty can. I took the drawer to the register and came back to investigate. I pushed the door open and there was Mark with a hand truck loading six cases of frozen steaks into the trunk of his car ... restaurant steak ... steak I would have to explain the disappearance of on the the next inventory ... and the bastard didn't even look embarrassed.

I said, "You realize that you're fired."

He said, "Why?"

I said, "We're cutting back, there's no need for a cook when there are more steaks in your trunk than there are in the freezer."

He looked confused then said, "You can't fire me."

"I just did."

"I'll get you, you asshole."

I walked back inside and pulled the door shut, then called the Revere police.

Okay, we have to talk about the Revere police for a minute. Stories floated around about how some of them would take advantage of situations, helping themselves to stuff when a store was broken into. These were common folklore around Revere. I have to say that the guys I knew were stand-up and trustworthy. That being said ... we always comped their meals, a practice I was grateful for later that day.

The cops went to Mark's apartment and retrieved the steaks. I checked with the company and they were not going to press charges as long as the food was returned. Since the meat was back in the freezer, all was well and that was the end of it. I called a cook I knew and offered him the job, and we arranged for him to start the next day.

That night we closed at 10, but business usually dropped off to just a trickle after 8. At 9 pm, the waitresses started to clean and reset. There were a few coffee and muffin customers so I cleaned half the grill and turned it off leaving the other half for any latecomers' meals. I told Cookie to call me if she needed anything cooked. She snorted at me sweetly as if I were an idiot child.

"If anyone needs anything I'll cook it myself," she said. I pulled the cash drawer and set it up for the following day, then took the money and tapes down to the office, where I was sitting trying to figure out a $1.75 discrepancy when the phone rang. I left it for someone upstairs to pick up.

Cookie called down, "David you'd better pick-up." I did. The voice was Mark's. "I'm gonna kill that sonnabitch, and any of you bitches get in my way, I'm gonna kill you too." He was talking to one of the waitresses.

"Mark," I interrupted, "we're not pressing charges. You lost your job is all. Calm down."

"You asshole, I just needed to know you were there. I'll see you in a couple of minutes." I heard him hang up.

Remember how big I said he was? I tossed the money into the safe and went upstairs. The waitresses and dishwasher were freaking.

"We're closing early," I said. "How many of you have cars?" I gave each of the drivers $5 to drive the others home. I herded them out quickly, locked the doors and watched them drive away as I called the cops. I told them the situation. They said we'll be there in a minute. I put on a fresh pot of coffee for them. While I waited I shut everything down, cleaned the grill and watched the parking lot.

About 10 minutes later a squad car pulled into the lot. I knew the cops and unlocked the door and let them in.

"He hasn't shown up," I said. "Maybe he smartened-up." One of them laughed.

"No such luck. We found him parked half a block away. He had a baseball bat and Bowie knife on the seat and a .357 under it."

"Oh shit!"

"Good thing you called buddy ... any chance of some coffee."

The next day, we were comping another cop for dinner. I sat down with him and asked what was happening with Mark.

"Didn't you hear?" he said. "We tossed his apartment. The dipshit had an arsenal in there; pistols, automatics, a shotgun, a boxful of big honking knives, and enough baseball bats for a season of Little League. We got him on so many 'carrying concealed',and unregistered weapons violations that he's not gonna see daylight for some time."

For some reason, that's when I started to shake.

October 8, 2013

A Poodle

March 2009

I was sitting on the concrete base of a light pole in the mall parking lot smoking a cigarette. The parking space by the pole was empty.

As I sat there enjoying a few moments of quiet. a large, black, suburban assault vehicle pulled into the space, screeching to a halt just inches short of where I sat. The doors popped open and a 30-something couple emerged. They both started immediately coughing and retching and waving their hands in front of their faces while glaring with shock and horror at the small tube of tobacco in my hand.

I've seen their type before and just ignored them, knowing that if I didn't engage, they'd go find something else to be critical of. They did. rolling their windows down a bit ... which I found unusual considering the offense they had taken at my gall to have a habit of which they did not approve, they slammed the doors and went off to buy something more.

I watched them leave and was returning to my reverie when my eye was caught by some motion in the mini-monster truck. A sharp nose and bright eyes peered from between the seats, disappeared, then a standard poodle leaped over the seat backs and into the front passenger seat.

It looked at me, and I thought I detected a sense of commiseration. We nodded at each other companionably. Then the poodle opened its mouth and, tongue lolling out briefly, seemed to laugh.

As I watched, it moved to the driver's seat ... and squatted.

I field-stripped the last of the cigarette, put the filter in my pocket, and strolled past the open driver's window. A quick glance inside confirmed my suspicions. There was a small mound and a pool of liquid in the center of the seat.

Suddenly the poodle's head pushed out of the opening. I patted it for a moment and went in to get back to work.

October 7, 2013

Joe Saves My Life

Nov 30, 2005

It was a dark and stormy night ... no wait ... it really was! It was the middle of winter in downtown Boston and I had been working late checking proofs on a manual that had to go into production the next day. When Maria, the person who normally cleaned my office, poked her head in the door at 8pm, I told her that I'd be working for a while. I asked her about Rudy her little boy who had missed some school with a cold. She told me that he was all better. About five minutes later she knocked at the door again, handed me a cup of black coffee and wished me good luck.

I wasn't done at 11 and the last train for home, 35 miles away, left at 12:10. So I packed up the laptop, bundled up and headed out the door.

Down in the lobby I said goodnight to the security guard, Joe. Joe was from Haiti. He was tall, thin, charming and handsome. He wanted more than anything else to become a conductor on AMTRAK. A couple of weeks earlier I had written a letter recommending him to them. I asked if he'd gotten a response. He shook his head sadly, "not yet my friend."

I left him in the lobby and walked down the long corridor to the Arlington St exit of the building. As I walked out I noticed that the snow had been shovelled but more had fallen. There were some black trashbaqs at the curb and they were rustling. The wind had died down so I realized it was rats. I stood still right outside the door and checked the street. I could see a couple of people back in the shadows of a nearby alleyway.

I decided that I wanted to get to the subway entrance quickly. I took three quick steps, hit a patch of ice and flipped up in the air and down whacking my head on the sidewalk.

When I woke up, I was on a couch in the lobby and Joe was standing over me. "You okay man?" he asked. I sat up. Then lay back down dizzy. Joe called an ambulance and made sure the computer got locked back up in my office. Then he called my wife and told her not to worry.

Now that may not seem like saving a life, but Joe had followed me down the corridor and was watching from the door when I fell. He dashed out as whoever was in the alley started moving towards me, and by himself had dragged my substantial bulk back to the lobby.

I saw him a couple of months ago. He looks good in AMTRAK black.

Tea for the Tillerdog

Long ago and far away (oh, my best beloved) there was a student of limited resource and capacity. He lived in the vale of of Washington University, set about by phallic symbols made of the teeth of elephant children. These towers protected the land from the intellectual desert of St. Louis.

At night, he huddled in a small cave hung with posters and mobiles, and eye-catching items of more than oriental splendor. But when the sun rose, he placed upon his back the coat of morning and ventured forth in his guise of "The Elementary Penguin", to tell stories and soothe the hallucinatory dreams of those who had eaten of the mushroom or tasted the blotter.

One day the Penguin was seated in the cool shade of the student union (a coming together which was devoutly to be hoped for), contemplating navels other than his own, when he noticed a creature that resembled a long hairy ... ummm ... let us say 'sausage' (best beloved). The creator of all things had seen fit to place short stubby legs upon this animated sausage, two before and two behind. Above the forelegs rose a head that seemed too big for the rest of the creature.

The Penguin regarded the creature with 'satiable curiosity, wagering with himself as to the moment that the head would overbalance the body and, pivoting on its forelegs, the wiener dog Max (for indeed it was that very animal) would tip forward and flip end over end down the slope which led down from the student union to the swamp known as 'the residential halls'.

But as he studied Max he realized that there was indeed a counter-balance dangling from the rear of the creature. A counter-balance which even in repose seemed to clear the ground by only the faintest fraction of the smallest fragment of an inch. Sipping from the potent caffeinated beveraqe which was his usual if not sole sustenance. He watched the animated sausage at play in the field, and pondered the irritation and pain that would be the lot of an extruded member so proximal to the ground.

As the sun rose higher, the Penguin recorded the approach of a long-haired female, more of Max's persuasion than of the Penguin's, yet extraordinarily different. The Penguin muttered "is Timmy in the well?" under his breath.

Max had become aware of the presence of the female and turgidly produced a pink sausage that seemed to cling remora-like to its supporter. It did, as the Penguin winced to recognize, drag along the ground, scraping through stones, sand and grass clippings leaving a shallow ditch. The Penguin, as was his wont, took a simple-minded delight that the word ditch appeared in relation to the female, and immediately started casting about for other rhymes.

She, in the meantime, had found some shade beneath a dying maple and lay there panting, overheated in a multiplicity of ways. Max, with his enormous pink plow, furrowed the field as he slipped up behind.

He attempted. The lass looked over her shoulder with disdain and dislodged the intruder through the simple expedient of standing up. She moved to another patch of shade, but Max came grooving through the fields to try again ... and again ... and again. After thirty minutes the field looked like a trigonometrician's blackboard. Max's excitement was intense and he had been leaving trails of genetic material in the furrows. The penguin pondered this, realizing that to the vector belong the spills.

At last more in furrow with his hanger, Max watched as the object of his affections trotted away to find a more private place to repose. The Penguin watched as Max's spirits and wilted. Sadly, that was all that wilted, and for some time the animated weiner wandered forlornly, leaving a map of his sorrow.

The Penguin ordered an iced drink poured it into a bowl, placed it on the ground and called Max over. He wondered which end would be in the bowl. Max lapped at it gratefully and the Penguin enjoyed a Cat Stevens moment for he had provided 'tea for the tillerdog'.

Babe Magnet

Oct 9, 2006 So I'm sitting outside a cafe in Seattle, and my two sons are bracketing me. The older is mid 30s, the younger mid 20s. Both are athletic, slim and handsome. I'm burly, balding and a graybeard. My sons are drinking some godawful soy latte concoctions. I'm drinking a triple ristretto. My gray beard is fluttering in the breeze.

A pretty girl about 20 or so crosses the street and, as she passes to enter the cafe, she looks at me and grins ... okay she twinkles ... as does her nose stud and the gold glitter in the blue patch of her otherwise black hair. I smile back and she winks at me as she goes in.

My two sons look at each other across me and shake their heads disbelieving.

"Whatthefuck Dad?!" says the younger. "I'm the one without a date."

My wife and my older son's wife walk past on their perambulation between shopping venues. My daughter-in-law deposits my baby granddaughter on my lap, and the two disappear into another store. A moment later the girl comes out, but now that little Amelia is on my knee she won't make eye contact.

My sons relax. It must be okay. Dad's not THAT attractive.

October 6, 2013

Parking in Naples

In the 1960s my father received a grant to do research at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy. I was in my early teens, relatively competent in French, a quick study in other languages and excited by the adventure.

Arrangements were made. My father's lab was ready, a local housekeeper had been recommended and hired, and soon a very nice apartment would be available; soon, but not immediately. So the first month we were there we stayed in a small pensione (hotel) very close to the Mergellina, a strip on the bay where cafes and restaurants jostled for a view of Vesuvius across the bay.

It was also close to the large downtown park of which the Stazione, which doubled as the city aquarium, was the central jewel. It was also, of course, in the middle of the city. The park was a long green lozenge of grass and trees, an oriental rug studded with statues, gazebos, and bandstands. It was lined with walks and its border was a ring of wide streets from which narrow alleys drifted like a grimy fringe.

The pensione that we lived in was about three blocks from the park on a main street. It faced the bay, there were restaurants nearby, It was like living in a postcard. But, within a few yards, back in the alleys, there was another world, the real world of Naples.

Even back in the 60s the economy of Naples was depressed. Some estimates put the unemployment rate as high as 70 percent. It was a given that the largest sector of the economy was the black market. Even the wealthiest Neapolitans seemed to have a hand in it. There were dozens of shops on every block where you could buy smuggled goods, and it wasn't just the dingy, tiny storefronts, some of the ritziest shops had legitimate goods on sale above the counter and smuggled or stolen goods below. It was organized crime, but on such a massive scale that it was more like a shadow infrastructure.

I didn't know this when we first arrived (though eventually I made friends with many of the locals and even went out on a speedboat smuggling run or two). I was kept busy the first few weeks learning my way around the area and getting to know the people that my father (and I as occasional lab assistant) would be working with.

The third day at the pensione, I noticed that my transistor radio was gone. As I was looking for it I realized that I was also missing a pair of sneakers, and my favorite jacket. My parents, alerted by my flurry of searching suddenly realized that many of their possessions were gone as were those of my brother and sister.

My father demanded an explanation of the owner of the pensione, who shrugged ... of the police, who shrugged ... of the consulate, who shrugged. So, we bought replacements for things that we needed.

And they disappeared.

At the end of the first week, it seemed that the only possessions we could retain were those that we were actually wearing. My parents were so caught up in getting things straight and taking care of my siblings, that I was pretty much left on my own.

So I went down and talked to the guy who made hand gestures to help people park their cars. He was in his early 50s and had a yachting cap that he wore to show his official status as owner of the parking gesture franchise for the eight parking spaces at the front of the building.

I will call this gentleman Enzo. He had grace, style and wit, and you instinctively knew that cars in his care would be there when you returned and that goods left in the car would remain there, though perhaps somewhat disarranged. He was 'someone to be trusted' and his service/protection franchise was a fully owned subsidiary of the local gang.

How do I explain this business to you?

Imagine that you need to park in downtown Boston. You drive slowly down the right lane looking for signs of incipient departure when a neatly dressed man (well-shined shoe, slacks, white shirt, tie, sports jacket, peaked hat) steps out from between some cars and motions to you. You roll down your window and he tells you that the red car three spaces ahead will pull out in about two minutes, and will leave more than 15 minutes on the parking meter, and, if you would care to wait, he will make sure that you can pull right in to that spot.

The red car pulls out, and with the helpful gestures of the gentleman, you pull in. He then informs you that he will be glad to make sure that no-one bothers your car, and that, if you would like, he will feed the meter for you. "How long do you think your errand will take you sir?"

If someone scratches your car by pulling in too close, he will get the license number name and address of the offender. He may even work out a payment so that when you return he can point out the damage and hand you a wad of money from the other driver as compensation. So, when you come back to retrieve your car, he tips his hat and you tip him for making your life a little less stressful and smoother.

The generosity of your tip affects his memory. The next time you are in need on his block, he'll remember you and the level of your appreciation of his efforts will determine the availability of a parking space, and safety of your car. The fact that these are public parking spots on a public street does not factor into this equation at all.

The reason that this works in Naples, is their sense of honor. There is, unfortunately justly, a suspicion in the UniStatian culture that assumes that anyone who is trying to make your life easier without presenting a contract and stipulations with non-fulfillment penalties and schedules of payments is probably a con man who is trying to rip you off. The sad truth is that all that paperwork makes no real difference. There less honor and honesty in our documented transactions than in the verbal, almost implicit, Neapolitan agreement. The legal foofaraw just gives you a nice warm fuzzy feeling and forty pounds of paperwork to store and haul around with you for the next 20 years.

Although engaged in a what our police would call a protection racket, the Neapolitan car parker treats his occupation as a real job. He doesn't, and his customers don't think of it as a scam. He provides a service, and one that is both useful and pleasant. Were he to fail to protect your vehicle he would consider himself dishonored. That may not seem important to many of us in the US but it is desperately important to him and it is why you can trust him.

But now let's get back to my story.

Since I had been in Naples for a week, and noticed how the locals dress and carry themselves, I have tried to assume some protective coloration. I'm trying to blend in. Part of that is learning the language. I've spoken French for years and had a crash immersion course in Italian at Berlitz to prepare me for the trip.

But Enzo doesn't speak Italian, he speaks Neapolitan. Neapolitan is the 'Spanglish' of Italy. Some theorize that it is the bastard child of Italian and Romanian, others opine that it is just a degraded dialect of the unlettered South. I think that it is an elegantly compressed form of Italian.

Neapolitans, more than any other cultural group other than the deaf, talk with their hands. They can hold impressively long discourses at a distance in a noisy environment without saying an audible word, so when the need to speak arises, they run their words together hoping to get through the ordeal quickly. Naples was known for its noisy marketplaces and an entire vocabulary was developed, far more sophisticated than it seems from the caricatures we are generally fed of hand waving intermixed with a few unsavory gestures. I am going to resist going off on this tangent now but perhaps, another time, I'll get back to the topic.

So I left the pensione and went down to the street. I sat on some steps and watched Enzo work and listened to him talk. It was hard to understand but there was enough classical Italian to help me work out meanings from context. I'm making this sound very deliberate. It wasn't. I'm a compulsive communicator and I am driven to understand what people say and what they mean and whether they're the same.

Enzo seemed amused by my attention. He started talking to me switching back and forth from Neapolitan to what he called Roman (no not Latin, Roman as in how they talk in Rome). At one point, he was so caught up in explaining a word to me that he had me walking with him as he did his job. Since I was in my early teens and fairly good-looking (most people thought I was Italian) there was a slight upward trend to the tips.

This amused Enzo greatly, so the next day he took me on as a kind of apprentice, bringing me a cheap yachting cap. He showed me the parking car gestures, but even better he started to explain some of the Neapolitan gestural speech,starting, of course, with the swears. By the end of the day I had learned among other things, how to call some one a half-wit, ask what the Hell they thought they were doing, and a series of gestures that I didn't understand the meaning of but seemed to get the recipients very ... very ... angry all without opening my mouth.

The tips were rolling in. The area was dense with European tourists and they seemed to think that Enzo and I were a father and son team and tipped extra for the cuteness and warmth that it implied. Enzo was pleased.

The next day I showed up without my hat. Enzo wanted to know why. I explained, as best I could, that while my parents and I were out to dinner, the hat had disappeared. Enzo shrugged, a shrug that seemed to say 'it happens'.

By now I was 'Davio' and, on the strength of two days worth of conversation, a friend ... almost family. That's one of the things that I love about the people I met in Naples. They were quick to befriend you if you just left yourself open to the possibility.

Enzo was as curious about my extended stay as I was about his language.

Why were we here? I explained as best I could.

He was amazed. "Your father is a Professore!? A Dottore!?" Trust me, he pronounced the capitals the exclamation points and the question marks.


"How long will you be staying?"

"Probably two years."

"Two years!!!!" Enzo was shocked. "You will be living here in Naples for two whole years?"

The wonder of it overcame him. He lifted his eyes in disbelief to the sky as if imploring God to send a sign that this was not his imagination and that a miracle of biblical proportions was being revealed to him right here, right here, as he stood beneath the blue sky.

Then, since no further sign was given, he gave that shrug and sideways wag of the head that indicated his acceptance of whatever he was dealt, pushed back the brim of his cap, put his foot up on the bumper of one of the vehicles in his charge, and extracted a crumpled pack of Pall Mall cigarettes (part of a tip from a tanned young man who, a few months later would let me help transfer cases of cigarettes and whiskey from a darkened steamer onto his speedboat) from his breast pocket. He extracted a cigarette, flourished a well worn Zippo, and blew out a stream of smoke as he gazed moodily and romantically across the road, past the seawall to the blue of the bay and the looming volcano beyond.

This wasn't strange behavior, far from it, this was how Enzo always smoked, especially when there were tourists with cameras in view. He did however seem more pensive and quietly amused.

The next day I found the hat in my room. It was in a place I had searched, but ... oh ... never mind.

Things were proceeding in my parent's lives. More and more of my time was needed elsewhere, but I did spend what time I could with Enzo and he patiently and wittily tutored me in the way of Neapolitan life. He introduced me to some of the fishermen from nearby Santa Lucia (yes THAT Santa Lucia), and waiters from Mergellina and some interesting people who didn't seem to have anything to do but hang around, teach me some Neapolitan songs, and disparage my young already baritone range as inappropriate to the purpose.

Every day though, more and more of the stuff we had thought stolen was reappearing in our hotel rooms. I couldn't help but wonder where it was coming from. By the third week, which was to be our last one at the pensione, there was more stuff appearing in our rooms every day; clothing, knick-knacks, electronics, etc., but now it was stuff that wasn't ours. Not a lot of it, but stuff we'd never seen before.

There was an excellent pair of butter-soft black shoes that were exactly my size that appeared at the foot of my bed. My mother wondered aloud at the scarf she'd found in her suitcase. My brother was unable to account for the wind-up toy speedboat that we found him testing in the bathtub, my sister had discovered a doll in a gypsy costume, my father never seemed to run out of his favorite brand of cigarettes.

Finally, our apartment was ready. We'd be moving all the way out to the Northern tip of the bay to Capo Posillipo. We were packed, but we had more suitcases than we did when we arrived and they were all full. My parents must have puzzled about it, but they were too caught up in everything else to pay attention.

While they were finishing up, I took the suitcases that were ready down to the front door. I sat on one of them. Enzo, when he had finished greeting the driver of a battered Fiat as if he had a Rolls Royce, came over and sat with me. We could see the crenellated towers of the building that I would be living in across the small arc of the bay to the north and I pointed it out to him.

"Nice place," he said. "Lots of pretty girls." He made the modified epicure's gesture. With the tip of the finger on the side of the upper lip and a quick twisting motion as if twirling a moustache, it meant good food. The same gesture made with the knuckle instead meant beautiful woman. "Go to the Riva Fiorita and dance with the tourist ladies. Let them think you are Napolitano, because now you mostly are, and they will think that you are romantic and you will live in their dreams. Then you say, 'it's so hot to dance ... niamosheh, let's go down to the beach.' Then you roll around in the sand and who knows?"

I laughed, "I'd probably end up kissing a gangster's sister by mistake."

"You could do worse."

"I'll be working right down the street," I said, "I'll come back and tell you if I need protection."

I finally got the courage up to ask Enzo. Did he know what was going on with all the stuff? Where did it go? How did it get back? Where did the new stuff come from?

"Aahh stai'tzeet (shut up)" he said. Indicating by gesture that he maybe knew something but no information would be shared. Then he shrugged, and I knew that he would tell me something, a small piece. He grinned and said, "someone probably didn't know that you were staying, paisan."

October 3, 2013

A Bad Bookman

Summer 2007

Sometimes, people give you no option about how you judge them.

When I sell my superfluous books it often involves a day trip to New Hampshire. There is a second-hand bookstore on Route 1 that has a wonderful selection and willingly swaps or buys from me. As an added benefit, the owner has an impressive collection of jazz recordings and it is a delight to listen to while browsing.

A few years ago, I had a couple of boxes of books in the back of the car. They were just random reading materials, some trade paperbacks, a few hardcovers, nothing extravagant. But time was short. My wife and I decided to take them to a different store in a nearby town.

I had been avoiding this more convenient bookstore for a very simple reason. It was too damn tempting. The last time I had been there I had seen a nearly complete collection of the works of E. Phillips Oppenheim, and another of Sax Rohmer. The bookseller had huge masses of wonderful old hardcovers and I wanted them all. These are the kind of books that I find very difficult to dislodge from my shelves and the best defense is self-denial, but I had been diligent about my book purchases recently, so off we went.

I find that the polite thing to do is to leave the books in the car and ask if they are buying books. Some stores have designated hours, others get overstocked and won't buy for a few weeks. So we left the books in the car.

When we entered the shop, I was bothered. Previously this owner had classical music playing quietly, but now the place was filled with a pablum of soft rock and featureless "new age".

My wife went to browse through the art and children's books while I checked with the owner. He was a new guy in his mid 30s or early 40s, very fit and proud of it since he was wearing his upscale jogging outfit at work. I asked if he was buying any books and the floodgates opened. He informed me that he ONLY bought trade paperbacks, that he ONLY bought them if they were in perfect condition, that he ONLY bought them in small quantities, etc. Then with a sniff, he also informed me that he didn't buy anything that smelled musty, and punctuating with another sniff he informed me that he never bought books from people who smoked. At that time I smoked a pipe.

"I can't sell books that stink," he said, waving his hands vaguely as if to waft the evil odors away from his nose. "People won't buy them. So I doubt that I would buy anything from you."

I wasn't going to argue with him. It was, after all, his bookshop. Other bookshops were happy to take my books. I couldn't help tweaking him a bit though.

"When I worked at a rare book library," I told him, "there was an ongoing research project that suggested that tobacco smoke actually worked as a preservative."

At that he realized that I might, perhaps, have some exceptional books and he started to backtrack. "Well bring them in he said, "Maybe there's something that I'd be interested in."

"No," I said, "I'll just see if you have any books worth preserving," and wandered back to the shelves where I found that the goodies I'd lusted for were gone.

"Where are all the hardcovers?" I asked.

He proceeded to tell me, seemingly oblivious to my pain, that people didn't buy hardcovers anymore, that they smelled funny, that he didn't like having to research their prices, that he didn't want to get cheated out of their true value just because he didn't have time to price them properly, that they smelled funny, that they looked weird ... and on and on.

"So you sold them off?" I asked a little sadly for having missed the opportunity to bid on the little darlings.

"No." he said, obviously proud of his perspicacity and business acumen. "It cost me thousands, but I had them all sorted out and removed."


"Stacked in boxes and put into three dumpsters."

My face froze. It must have frozen with an ambiguous expression, since he went on happily to tell me that he had donated the contents of the dumpsters to the Boy Scouts. I relaxed briefly. Then he told me that they had made about fifty dollars after they pulped the ugly smelly th ...

I turned and left. I went out to the car and lit a cigarette (just for the benefit of the books in the back seat). A few seconds later my wife exited the shop, and came and sat down with me.

"That's the last time we go to that place," she said. "What an ass." I couldn't help but agree.

October 2, 2013

Working with bats

When I was in my teens, I worked for a while for Fred Webster, a scientist who studied bats. Fred's house was, appropriately, right next to the Mount Auburn Cemetery and his property was so large that he had a gigantic trampoline in its own building and a large Quonset hut (originally meant to be a helicopter hangar) where we worked taking photographs of bat flight patterns. I still have a small scar on my arm from the subcutaneous anti-rabies shots I had to have in order to work there.

The bats I worked with were the little brown bat (Myotis Lucifugus) and one of my favorite tasks was defrosting them. They hibernate well and if you keep them in the freezer compartment of the lab's refrigerator, all you have to do is take them out and let them thaw for a while. I'd go to the lab refrigerator and open the freezer  to take out an ice crusted lump and place it in the bottom of a cage. A short while later with the frost melted into a pool around it you could see that it was furry, curled up on itself and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.

Later in the day it would shake itself awake and climb the wires of the cage to hang upside-down. As I remember we gave them a couple of days to acclimate before flying them.

On one side of the hangar was an expanse of black velvet to provide a non-reflective surface to photograph against. Positioned in front of that backdrop was an electronic cannon that let us fire mealworms into the air to a relatively predictable height. High on the opposite wall was a device called a "gun camera". It was a repurposed piece of military hardware that had been used to track and confirm air combat hits.

We'd release the bat and it would start flying circles around the hangar. When it was in a good position, we'd trigger the cannon and camera simultaneously the bat would dive for the treat and the camera would fire about six sequential exposures in about a second. We used a Graflex 4x5 plate film back. When the plates were developed we'd have a record of the swoop, loop and capture all on a single plate.