Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years Later

The story of my day on September 11, 2001, is one that I've told over and over as a way of explaining my continued optimism about humankind. I felt that the horror of the day was alleviated by my direct experience showing that intelligent thoughtful people overcame their differences.

Now here we are on September 11, 2009 and the US is starting to look more and more like the Middle East. The national evening news sounds less like Walter Cronkite and more like Al Jazeera, our own Jihadists rave about birth certificates, death panels, socialism, fascism, and all the other buzzwords of fear.

Intelligent conservatives are drowned out and tainted by association with the neocons who themselves have been too easily seduced by the insanity fringe whose core beliefs are that diversity of opinion is wrong, that government should be a theocracy but only if it is their church in charge.

What has it come to when we hear people proclaiming publicly that letting the president address schoolchildren about the importance of education is just like Lim Il Jung's control of North Korean education, when we hear (as I did a few days ago) people talking openly whether it would be better to impeach the president or just assassinate him.

I'm a great believer in free speech, but I must admit that I am taken aback by the bile, the lies, the disinformation, the viciousness, and ... frankly the traitorous language that seems to be so pervasive. I am repulsed by the smearing of lipstick on the theocratics of Rushdoony and Chaitkin (whose only perceptible positive trait is that he dislikes ex-President Bush just as much as he dislikes everybody else) in an attempt to pass their prejudices as rational approach to governance of a diverse country.

It saddens me that we seem to have fallen so far, that instead of seeing Al Qaeda as the enemy we have taken them as a model.

The good thing, though, is that this is not (despite what the neocons try to say) a "grassroots" movement. It is a well-orchestrated and vicious attack by a few nuts and the sheep that follow them.

Most of us citizens voted for one of two candidates, neither of whom had outrageous ideas or megalomanic tendencies. Far from it! The two presidential candidates in the last election agreed more than disagreed. They were both intelligent thoughtful men, and either would have been acceptable to a majority of us.

I cannot help but think that the vituperative attitude of these conservative spokespeople is a result of embarrassment at the failure of eight years of control resulting in the current mess that our country finds itself in, coupled with jealousy over the loss of power. The tools they use are language loaded with kneejerk terms that their audience knows to fear but cannot define, a delivery that asserts the absolute undeniable correctness of a single viewpoint, and (I'm sorry to say) a kind of racism disguised as political thought.

The problem, is that crazy people are far more interesting than reasonable people. A quiet intelligent discussion is always trumped by someone being hit by a chair. William F. Buckley has been replaced with the political equivalent of professional wrestling. When I (rarely) watch some of these shows on Fox News I can't help but think that the participants should be wearing tights and screaming about their upcoming cage match. In my bleaker moments I sometimes imagine that substituting "Rowdy" Roddy Piper for Bill O'Reilly and Jesse "The Body" Ventura for Sean Hannity would result in a more intelligent, reasonable and entertaining discussion.

Maybe what we need are some spokespeople for the rest of us who aren't loonies but still have a killer instinct ... but I guess it's hard to find rabid attack dogs that will protect the middle of the road.

The fires of September

It was a bright clear fall day as I drove over the Tobin Bridge and into Boston. I commuted in the early morning to avoid rush hour. I was in a good mood. I had some Doo-wop on the radio and a four-shot Americano in the cup holder. I drove through the maze of twisty downtown streets, pulled into my space in the parking garage, grabbed my coffee and my Land's End briefcase and took the elevator up to my office.

Humming "Cara Mia Mine" badly, I booted my computers, adjusted the blinds against the glare of the early morning sun, turned on some music (Bela Fleck this time), sat down and got to work. I answered the overnight crop of email and checked my schedule for meetings and approaching deadlines.

I was just settling into a rat's nest of verbosity disguised as a chapter of a software manual for automated backups on enterprise networks, when there was a knock on the door and Kate from QA opened it and stuck her head in.

"Got a radio?"

"No just a CD player."


It was an unusual request, so I called after her, "What's up?"

"Just wanted to listen to the news," she said turning back. "There's a weird story I heard on the car radio, something about a plane hitting a building in New York."

"One of those little private planes?"

"Must be."

"Let's find out."

I accessed a streaming news feed. As we listened, the door opened and someone else came in. I waved them to a seat without turning.

"Be with you in a minute."

But of course it wasn't a minute ... it was September 11th.

We sat quietly listening as things progressed getting worse and worse.

Finally over-saturated I turned down the volume and turned from my computer.

My office was full of people, and there were more people grouped outside the door in the corridor. Friends and rivals among my co-workers were sitting on the floor or had pulled chairs from neighboring offices. Many were crying, some were hugging each other for support, but all of them wanted the volume back up.

For hours we listened in silence, until security came and told us that the office building was closing and we had to leave. We were in a tall office building in downtown Boston, and paranoia had begun to emerge.

The streets were jammed. I called my wife to let her know what was going on and that it would take me some time to get home. She was shaken and asked me to detour to Mission Hill to pick up my daughter and bring her home.

On the way up Huntington Avenue. I watched crowds of students, brightly-plumed, or raven-moody Massachusetts College of Art students, somewhat more preppily garbed Northeastern students, piling off the trolleys and flowing across the street. None of them seemed to notice the increased traffic around them. None of them noticed as a plane flew overhead and drivers ducked.

My daughter wasn't at home, so I drove to where she worked to pick her up. It took hours to get through the clogged streets and back up to the North Shore. We didn't talk much during the ride. Just listened to the news on the radio, switching back and forth between WBUR's NPR coverage, and WBZ's CBS feed.

At some point during the drive something occurred to me. Among the people sitting in and around my office, aghast and horrified and frightened and angry, had been a veritable UN. There were people from every corner of the earth ... people of every religion; Moslems, Sikhs, Coptic Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Wiccans, Atheists, Agnostics, even an eccentric who claimed to be a Jedi practitioner.

And there we all were, sitting side by side in shared disbelief, horror, and communal sympathy, rivalries forgotten, failures unimportant, and, in my microcosm of an office, peace reigned. It's an image that I keep with me, an image that lets me hope.

All these years later, I still feel deep affection and a surge of pride in my fellow geeks and nerds who, in a work environment that prized logic and scientific thought, spontaneously formed an emotional community that ignored differences of culture and spirituality.

And I guess what makes me proudest is that I wasn't surprised, that I knew that there was a commonality, that respect for others' work, understanding of common goals, can lead to an environment where differences are less important than humanity.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Notice to residents


Some tenants of the backyard have forgotten the established rules. Your rudeness has not gone unnoticed.

  1. The aluminum foil pie pans hanging from the branches of the blueberry bush are not play things or mirrors in which to admire your bad selves. They are reminders that the humans who live in the white cave have first dibs on the blueberries. The humans have excluded felines from the yard and have always left plenty of berries on the bush for the rest of you. In return for this effort, they merely ask for enough blueberries for a couple of pies.
  2. It is both rude and a little disgusting to leave partially eaten berries on the bush to rot and become unpleasant surprises when the humans come to pick their share. We won't name names <stares fixedly at an arrogant Jay perched on the fence who cocks his head as if to say "shut up already">, but you know who you are.
  3. We do want to acknowledge the discipline shown by some of the yard residents. Chip <nods to a Chipping Sparrow bobbing up and down next to a lettuce> has been extremely helpful with the bug reduction exercises. Pat and Pat <two Catbirds, one on a bough of the White Pine, the other on the edge of the birdbath> despite their late return this year have kept us all amused, as has their cousin Mimus <nods at the mockingbird on the dead pine>.
  4. I am sure that we all wish Dolores and Downer the Mourning Doves good luck with their new meds. Some of these new uptake inhibitors can work wonders.
  5. A quick word to the Hummingbirds, the feeders are for your use as is the Bee Balm patch, but please bear in mind that not every brightly colored object contains nectar ... hats, even those with flowers on them, tend to contain humans and the flowers are not real. I know it's confusing, but try to figure out the contextual cues guys. We don't want a repetition of last week's disaster. You will be relieved to know, however, that Aunt Sally has fully recovered and we are considering putting a railing on the porch.

I'd like to close with another reminder that those of you who like blueberries should be polite and wait just another couple of days. Remember, you are guests here <stares sternly at the Jay>.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I was reading a chapter or two of Tom Holt's "My Hero" this morning, and rediscovered a passage that, as a writer, has always resonated.
In the beginning . . .

Was the Word? Not quite. To be strictly accurate, in the beginning was the Screen; And the screen was with God and the screen was God. And, admittedly, the Word moved upon the face of the screen, was put into pitch ten, italics, bold, right margin justify, macro/WORD and all the rest of it, but that came later.

Nowadays, the screen just thinks it's God, particularly when you want to print out. In the intervening time, creation has become a routine, a simple task that anybody can perform, given (as a bare minimum) a sheet of paper and a pencil.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Graphic Novels

I have been a fan of graphic novels since long before they were called that.

The first time I opened one of Lynd Ward's "novels without words" I was stunned. The powerful graphics, the emotional content, the dynamics of the storytelling took my breath away. I wish that they were better known. Some of the titles that I own are "God's Man", "Madman's Drum", and "Vertigo".

Milt Gross' parodied Ward wonderfully, with his "He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It — No Music, Too".

So I was happy to see that one of my favorite Blogs, BibliOdyssey is featuring some graphics from these novels on their latest post "Speechless", and even happier that they have provided some artists with whom I am unfamiliar.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I was standing at the kitchen sink spooning French roast into the coffee press, when a flutter of wings past the window notified me that there was a visitor to our backyard garden. I was disappointed to see that it was a mourning dove.

It's hard to describe my feelings toward these birds, I guess it's a kind of ambivalence bordering on irritability.

For one thing, their proportions seem wrong. Their large pigeon-like body is surmounted by a tiny head that seems too small, like an afterthought, like the head that a naughty child would have constructed out of clay to replace the one that fell off and broke.

Perhaps it bothers me because their disproportions remind me so much of my seventh-grade teacher. A piece of work named Miss Watson who looked like a pigeon. Early in the school year she had selected me as her target for abuse (there seemed to be no reason for this, I wasn't a clown or disobedient) and would often discipline for some obscure fault by keeping me in the classroom during lunch; sitting waiting hungrily as she ate her invariable tomato soup from a thermos, two saltines, and a preserved kumquat extracted from a glass jar with a special fork. I'd have delighted in her eccentricity had I not been the target of it.

Another thing about the doves that grates on me is their song. I'm not sure if the thing that bothers me is its unrelenting sameness; four notes, mostly the same one, over and over, sounding as if an obsessive compulsive had got hold of a syrinx or ocarina or simply a couple of beer bottles.

Perhaps it's the relentlessly minor key of the song. I can listen to other birdsong repeat without getting bothered, but I guess that I have had my fill of depressives lately, and having a pair of them in the trees by the garden is more than I need for my own peace.

By the time the coffee had brewed, the plunger had been pressed, and the life-giving black elixir poured, the dove had left.

I went out to the back porch and sat. The long side of our backyard faces approximately south east so the early morning sun slides up behind the palisade fence to my left and plays hide and seek through the branches of a huge white pine for a couple of hours. it was just barely over the fence when a mockingbird decided to land atop one of the fenceposts.

It came in straight, facing the sun, and at the last minute turned its head to the right, and went vertical to brake, its wings and tail spread wide the white band prominent as the bird was silhouetted against the hidden rising sun the light streaming through the tips of its feathers and a small cheerful bird was suddenly transformed into a heraldic symbol.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Gray Summer

This is the grayest coldest and dampest summer I've seen here in a long time.

I was up at about 5 am; puttering about, shower, shave, French press full of coffee. I took my coffee out onto the back porch and looked at the cold and soggy garden. It is unfortunate weather for my tomatoes. They need the dusty heat of the summer sun. The blueberries are late too. If this keeps up, instead of feasting in August, I'll have tomato salad and blueberry pie for Thanksgiving. The rhubarb seems happy, but the lettuce and beans, which should thrive in this weather, are sulking and refusing to thrive.

But there is one vegetable which is doing well, and it was the bright spot of my morning.

I put my cup down on the porch railing and walked down the steps and out to the vegetable patch. The ground is so wet that even though we use raised beds the area between rows sinks beneath my weight and I leave footprints in the dirt as I walk through and bend over to grab the base of a seven inch high cluster of eight broad leaves and pull.

There it is. People who buy these in a supermarket just don't know what a wonderful thing a radish is. Beneath the green crown of the leaves is a large darkish red globe nearly two inches in diameter. Below that Dirt clings to it. It's good dirt.

The garden was dug by hand with shovel and digging fork. working on our hands and knees, we shook the dirt out of the grass clods and tossed them into the wheelbarrow for hauling to the compost heap. The rocks were removed to a pile by the fence where they wait to become a wall or path. The soil was once full of clay and too dense for gardening.

But, we worked at it. We hauled wheelbarrow loads of our own compost, composted manure from a nearby farm, and peat moss to the plot, then dug it in mixing it, sometimes with a digging fork, sometimes with our hands, to loosen it. Now it is friable and, if it weren't so wet today, crumbles loosely in my hand.

This is the dirt that damply clings to the radish that I hold. This is not just any dirt. This is my dirt. This is wonderful dark rich pleasant dirt. This is dirt that is expensive in time, effort, care, and love.

That is to say ... this dirt is not going to be washed down any drain.

I brush off most of the dirt. Then I roll the radish in the moisture accumulated on the rhubarb leaves. I pull my pocket knife out, flip open the blade and cut off the stringy tendril of the lower part of the root and leave it on the ground.

I walk back to the porch and cut off the crown to use later (it makes excellent pesto, it's good in potato soup, and there's a curry recipe that I've wanted to try). I take a sip of coffee and admire the globular beauty of my radish. It is so red with just a hint of pure white flesh peeking through where I cut.

I decide to take my time, so I use the knife to cut myself a slice of the radish. The contrast between the red skin and white flesh is so dramatic that it almost looks fake, as if someone has been Photoshopping my garden.

I eat the slice of radish. It is crisp and and the white flesh snaps as I bite. There is just a moment, a brief one, where I can taste the sweetness of starch converting to sugar and a light hint of water drunk from an old wooden cup. Then the burn hits, a wave of peppery potency that overwhelms any delicacy of flavor as the radish bites back.

I take my time and finish the little beauty, forgetting my coffee and letting it get cold as I sit in the early morning drizzle, cold and wet, but with a little bit of warmth on my tongue.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Weaver's Dilemma

I was talking to my brother the other day and he made an offhand comment that I almost missed. We had been talking about communication and our different approaches to it. I said that I was speaking less during social occasions these days, since (as it seemed to me) whenever I did I seemed to be the target of irritated looks from people. Foremost among those angry glancers were members of my own family.

Well, you're a storyteller he said, not a conversationalist. I shrugged acknowledgement, and returned to the main topic. Suddenly I stopped, as it occurred to me that what he had just said was a huge portion of the problem that I have with interpersonal communications.

I am a storyteller. I communicate in narratives that flow along specific channels in order to reach a point. In order to communicate, I need to follow that stream until it finishes.

To use another metaphor, when I converse I'm like a weaver amongst tailors.

I carefully arrange the threads, the warp and woof of my thought, and create a tapestry. The tailors around me are impatient with the complexity and unconcerned with the subject. They interrupt, their words like shears cut across my work, my story, my meaning as they take small inconsequential pieces and stitch them into a patchwork. They glare as the sound of my loom and shuttle slowly click and clack. They have plenty of leftover scraps. They have no need of this new cloth.

But still, they cut the cloth as it comes from the loom and finally they cut so close that the weave is damaged the loom falls silent and I sit quietly at the table with nothing to contribute. Unlike Penelope, I have no need to unravel my work. That task is done for me.

I sit in silence and listen to the spools of thread whiz by my head, words that could be woven but not by me, or at least not here and now.

In a little while, after those around me have blocked my existence from their minds, I will pick up my loom and go to the small room, walled with books, and set the device back up. I will take the stories I have to tell and I will weave them the way I want. I will use black thread for the borders of the story and the pauses, the ellipses that indicate the twists and turns. I will use red thread for emotional content, green for physical growth, blue for spirituality, or maybe I will mix and match in different ways.

But I will sit alone in my room with my loom and I will weave the stories the way they should be woven. I will finish them and I will hang them whole on my walls.

In the other room the tailors chatter and make cat's cradles with the thread, playing with what I can only perceive as remnants and scraps. They have their art, I have mine. I cannot tell which is the best. I can only turn inward and realize that my weaving is what I do, is who I am, and if I am doomed to live as a weaver among tailors, I will have to get used to silence, solitude and (most painfully) scorn.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book

To promote his Newbery Medal winning The Graveyard Book, Neal Gaiman went on a book tour where he read a chapter or portion of one at each stop. These were recorded on video and the result is a series of nine readings ... the entire book ... which is available for you to listen to free!

As always, Gaiman's edgy stuff isn't for the faint-hearted. So preview it before your inflict it on your kids.

As for me ... I'm going back to listen to it again.

Click the title of this entry to go there yourself.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lyrics to The No Sleep Blues

by The Incredible String Band
Cracks rack the windows,
Howls hold the floor,
Rains rot the rafters,
And do you just have to snore?
It's a most inclement climate,
For the season of the night.
Is that mouse playing football? Oh
I thought they didn't like the light.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

There's mayhem in this mansion,
Since the cows were coming home,
With delirium no sleepum,
In a cloud of nylon foam.
But release scours the outhouse,
And a hard rain sears the sky,
But if you let the pigs decide it,
They will put you in the sty.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

I think I'll get a picture,
And I think I'll put it on a nail.
I think I'll get another one,
And put it in a pail.
But the pail got so rusty,
I called it red, red, red for fun,
And I laughed like a leaver
'Till you ought to seen it run.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you.
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

The size of the future
Declared itself no part,
Aloof like a Sultan
In the autumn of your heart.
But the heart got so hearty,
That it pulled for the shore,
And the sailors fired a big salute,
And it made my ears quite sore.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

I mixed stones and water,
Just to see what it would do;
And the water it got stoney,
And the stones got watery too.
So I mixed my feet with water,
Just to see what could be seen;
And the water it got dirty,
And my feet they got quite clean.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

No Sleep Blues

I am lying on the bed, in the dark, trying to sleep. As usual, the very act of trying ensures that sleep will not come. There is a truism that should have been a proverb. It is certainly more true than "a watched pot never boils," which I have proven to be false by exhaustive study (a study initially inspired by the desire to prove the statement bogus, but now become a habit disguised as a Zen meditation).

I think about how the phrasing should be to achieve optimum effect and use. "Desired sleep never comes," won't work. "Desired" just doesn't flow and "come" now has irritatingly smarmy overtones. If I use "wanted" for "desire" it sounds like an FBI poster. Perhaps it is the multiple syllables in those words that is throwing off the rythm. Perhaps I should turn the phrasing around. "You can't sleep when you want to," is properly terse, but sounds like it should be in a song called "Safety Sleep."

That turns my mind to songs about sleep. The first that comes to mind is also the last. It turns into an earworm and for the rest of the night all my thoughts will be played to the happy, bouncing, jig-time, "No Sleep Blues".

They tell me sleeping's a gas
I want to lay down
But I'm sorry I woke ya
I really got the no sleep blues

"Cracks rack the window," says The Incredible String Band, but pain racks me. It's not even big pain, it's all sorts of little inconsequential pains that in union have found strength, like the ache of arthritis in the joints of both index fingers, the crackling, popping pain of my badly-healed shoulder broken years ago in a motorcycle accident, like the the throb of a healing cut on my arm, like the soreness of an odd bump that appeared today on my wrist and that I can't seem to stop touching ...

... and it's not just pains but sensations, like the feel of my toenails against the sheet, the way my t-shirt bunches and yanks against my body, the way the folds of flesh left after I lost a lot of weight adhere to each other, the feeling of finding the single crumb in the bed and feeling like the princess and the pea, the slight tightness in my neck and coppery feeling in my sinuses that tells me that there is a headache on the way.

Sound is part of it too. I hear the drip of the remnants of rain in the metal gutter, the scuttle of paws or claws in the attic (there's a mouse playing football), the constant off and on of the toilet down the hall with a leaky valve, a dog barks down the street, a baby turns over in her sleep in the next room, a car goes by, a train hoots in the distance, the peepers, the furnace ... it all adds up.

I can deal with the snoring, the rasping liquid gurgle as the air rattles the soft palate like a pea in a police whistle, from huge horselike snorts to faint kitty-purr rumbles. I can deal with that. (Do you just have to snore?) Over it all, louder in emotion than all else in volume, are the silences. On sleepless nights like this it is the silences which destroy me. I lie in the gloom and try to think of the proper metaphor.

It's like being in an airplane with the hum of jets and fans simultaneously annoying but providing audible feedback that everything is working properly, that I am safe. Then suddenly the sound stops. My hearing becomes focused. I listen for things to start again and as the silence goes on I start to panic, to plan, to extrapolate. Adrenaline kicks-in. Where I was merely alert before, now I am hyper-alert ... waiting for the sound of engines, waiting for the yellow masks to drop.

I hover on the edge of consciousness. Through the open window I hear the wind hissing through the branches, I watch the shadows of their dance cast by the streetlight gently oscillate on the ceiling and I hear the rumble of her snores as she lies next to me. I start to sink into a kind of trance, when ...

The snores stop. Suddenly, in mid-snore they stop and it is such a wrong silence that I am immediately stark-raving awake. I am so awake that my muscle fibres are quivering as they wonder if they need to be ready for a fight or flight response.

I listen for breathing. I hear none. I poke her ... nothing. I shake her once ... twice, and then at last there is an implosive inhalation as her soft palate unseals with almost a glottal click, it pops open, the air rushes through with a snore so loud that it wakes her up.

She looks over at me and glares. Her skin retains the memory of my poking and shaking her. I have woken her. I am the enemy.

"You were snoring," I tell her. It is untrue, but I have to keep the information simple so she can parse it, decide that I meant well, and go back to sleep. I want her to sleep. One of us should be functional in the morning.

The adrenaline is still perking through my system. The sharpness that it brings will keep me awake for a while. (Her snoring stops. I wake her up.) The flavor of danger mixes with my blood as the extrapolation begins and I think of everything that can go wrong.

This stopping of breathing, this apnea, is why she's tired all the time, why she sleeps so much every day, it helps intensify depression, it leads to stroke, it's why ... Oh God ... it is so much "why". I know this because, when I realized that sleep was slipping away from me, I hung my own elephant trunk mask beside the bed and turned off the pump.

All of this goes through my head as semi-consciously my brain tries to figure out why all that adrenaline is floating about and making trouble. Unwanted extrapolations both logical and not, twisted in some cases by love, fear, even selfishness, thoughts start weaving and intertwining like a knot of snakes. In rapid succession I wonder how I'd deal with things if she had a stroke. How she would. (Her snoring stops. I wake her up) How she'd deal with lack of control. How could she stand it if her hands were incapable of controlling a brush or a pencil. Would she finally get treatment. Why can't I persuade her to get treatment now, so that the chance is more remote.

Once started, this reaction perpetuates itsself. The thoughts weave and hiss and feed on themselves releasing more adrenaline and more worry and the knot of snakes gets larger and angrier. I twitch and ache as I realize that I can't tell her about these thoughts without bitterness, without the edge created by my insomnia and the guilt (Her snoring stops. I wake her up.) I feel for nearly killing my family by falling asleep at the wheel so many years ago and fear that she might put herself in the same ... and I know that she won't do anything about it because I've asked her for years to do something about it and she never ...

And because it looms so large in the dark, it becomes the repository of all problems, all the petty annoyances, the irritating quirks, the phobias, all of them get jammed into the shadow of that silence. That fearful cessation of breath.

Slowly, I try to back out of it. These are irrational fears, I tell myself. I just need to watch her and be careful and hope for the best. I can't make her decisions for her. She'll be okay.

My head is buzzing as the snakes skither over one another. The hissing in my ears, the pressure at the back of my skull, the throb of an approaching headache all factor into my next actions.

I get out of bed. I go to the bathroom and piss. I wash my hands, then I wash my face to calm myself to cool down. I rub some Tiger Balm on my temples and forehead to help quell the headache and pop some acetaminophen. I go to the kitchen, butter a slice of bread and eat it as I lean against the counter in my underwear. I look at the clock ... it is 3:23 am. I wonder if I should wait until it is 3:33 before going back to bed. Would that be a good omen? Then I dismiss the thought since there are four clocks in the kitchen and each shows a different time. I briefly think about averaging them, but decide that it's too much work.

I walk back to the bedroom carefully trying to avoid squeaking boards in the hallway outside the room where my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter sleep. The baby makes a sound in her sleep as I pass and it lifts my spirit a bit.

I switch on the light by the bed, fumble for my reading glasses and the book that I'm not really enjoying. Three chapters later and it is 4:07.

I turn out the light. Outside the sky is getting lighter. (And the dawn comes sneaking up when it thinks I'm not looking.) Her snoring stops. I wake her up. I get up, get dressed. I make a mug of espresso and take it into my office. I plug in my headphones open WinAmp and select "The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion" by the Incredible String Band. I listen to "No Sleep Blues".

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking;
I am starting to grieve, man,
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
and if I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

Then I start to write.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


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 at languages and excited by the adventure.

Arrangements had been 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 posses ions we could retain were those that we were actually wearing. My parents were so caught up in the administration of getting things straight and talking to authorities and figuring out what to do, that I was pretty much left on my own.

So I went down and helped 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, but at the same time you knew that cars under 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, more to the point, 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 have 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 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 (and where have we heard that before?). 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. As I have said before, 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 have me help him unload cases of cigarettes and whiskey from a darkened steamer onto his speedboat out past the tips of the bay beyond the limits of the Customs cutters) 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. 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."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Burning Desire

The sky was blue, the breeze was light, the air was slightly chill, the sun was warm, and the burning permit was magnetted to the front of the refrigerator. I poured myself a cup of very strong coffee, took a sip, put the cup down and picked up the phone.

I identified myself and my residence to the emergency center to keep from being surprised by a visit from the volunteer fire department.

Burning brush always worries me. My backyard isn't large enough to provide the prescribed distance from the house. If I gave it the full distance I'd have to put it under the white pine up against the neighbor's fence (which would do neither the tree nor the fence any good). So I try to strike a happy medium. (Whack! That should stop your giggling Madame Zaza.) I set the fire at the midpoint between the back porch and the trees and I keep it small.

There is already a pile of brush, dead twigs, dry weeds, branches snapped off the trees by last winter's snow. My wife is raking and rummaging through the gardens for more stuff to throw on the fire. I keep telling her that we're not supposed to burn leaves ... and she keeps ignoring me.

A crumpled ball of last week's town newspaper provides the initial boost that the fire needs and soon the pile is crackling and popping away. I use a metal-tined leaf rake to control it, cruelly suppressing its desire to eat a tree or a neighbor's house. The garden hose drools nearby.

When I turn around there are four large trashcans full of leaves and dry weeds waiting behind me.

"Honey ... " I start to say to her back as she disappears into the garage. Ah well. I know what I have to do. A couple of large twiggy branches have been left off the fire for just this purpose.

When the first leap of flame has subsided, I dump one of the cans onto fire and cover it with one of the branches. I spray a little water to dampen the happy jumping of flames, pull the branch off again, dump on the second can and cover and dampen.

An hour later when I feel that it's safe, I'll do the third and fourth cans.

By noon the fire is not as volatile and nervewracking so I feel comfortable watching it from the kitchen window as I make myself a peanut butter sandwich on pumpernickle and another cup of coffee. I drag a chair over near the smoldering garden debris put my cup down on the grass and balance the plate with the sandwich on my knees.

In mid-afternoon all I need to do is occasionally rake unburned pinecones and twigs to the active part of the embers. My wife comes and sits on the grass next to my chair. We discuss taxes, and plans for the future. We talk about when I will rent the rototiller and what we'll plant. We talk about getting me a pair of sandals ... when a shadow moves across us.

"Look up," she says. I do.

No more than 40 feet above me a hawk slowly circles and figure-eights. I see that it moves over the area of the fire to get a boost from the updraft. The sun is shining through its feathers. It circles again and drifts on the wind past the pine and then it is gone.

At four o'clock my daughter, her husband and my youngest granddaughter come back from a walk. I douse the fire as the spread a blanket nearby. My granddaughter, still in the stroller, chortles and claps her hands as the embers turn the water from the hose into hissing geysers.

We're having potato leek soup for dinner. I'm hungry.

Damn that hawk was beautiful.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guy Billout

Have I mentioned that I really admire the work of Guy Billout?

He is a deceptively simple artist with an obviously wicked sense of humor, but I find that the more I look at his work, the more I start extrapolating.

Find more of his work at his gallery.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Sweetness of Spring

For those unaware of my recent peregrinations, I have just returned to the East coast from a six month stay in Kirkland, WA in time for all of the Spring ceremonies, including an odd and very local one.

For the last dozen or so years (perhaps even longer, but my memory is faulty) every Easter Sunday morning an unusual plant appears in our front yard. This year was no exception.

Bleary-eyed I filled my machinetta with filtered water and espresso then set it on the burner to work its caffeinated magic. I walked out the kitchen door to and through the garage to stand at the top of the driveway.
The old hemlock that used to stand in front of the house was gone (the varnish shelf fungus that sprouted from it last year warned us that it was dying) and the red maple has not yet leafed out, so the sun was bright and direct. It was a real pleasure after the long, soggy, and relatively grey winter in the coastal cup that is the Seattle area.

As I soaked in the vitamin D, I scanned the front yard for clues to tasks that I'd have to perform to maintain the look of the neighborhood and avoid the shame and ostracism of the unkempt house of the block. Some fallen branches ... some weeds ... sand piles left by the road from the winter plowing ... not too much.

Then I noticed some new growth right by the toe of my sneaker. It was our annual harbinger of Spring. A small cluster of flowers had sprouted overnight. Five of them had sprouted next to the driveway in a rainbow of color: orange, purple, red, green, yellow. Each had a pair of green leaves at the base of its straight white stem. Each had a cellophane wrapper to keep it fresh and dry.

Perhaps I'd be more helpful if I described the colors of the blossoms as: orange, grape, cherry, lime, and lemon.

It happens, as if by magic, every year. Easter morning there is, on every lawn in the neighborhood, a cluster of bright lollipops with green construction paper leaves at the base of the stem. They appear without regard to the religious affiliation of the family within the house, or their friendliness, or their acceptability. They just appear.

No one ever takes credit (though everyone has their suspicions). No bible tracts, no messages or other ulterior motives are in evidence, just the brightly colored sugary sweetness of the odd blossoms in the sunshine welcoming Spring in whatever guise you want her to have.

Whoever you are ... thanks!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Useless Indeed

It's not often that I feel so angry at a book that I recommend against its purchase. I've been disgusted, irritated, outraged, angered but that's what books are supposed to do.

But now I find myself in the position of telling people, "Don't ... just don't buy this book."

What's really irritating is that it is such a lightweight and essentially meaningless book. It is a book that is too minor to have angered me as profoundly as it has.

The tome in question is "The Book of Useless Information" written by Noel Botham and published by Perigee (a division of Penguin.

I have a voracious appetite for oddities. That is why I was attracted to the book, which is presented as a compendium of useless facts.

As I started to read, I was pleased with the quirky and humorous presentation. I was particularly amused by the fact that Sheryl Crow lost her two front teeth in a stage accident and Samuel Beckett's presentation of a play called "Breath" which was 30 seconds long and had no actors or dialog bracketed the statement that "Michael Jackson is black".

But then I started to run into problems. One or two factual failures would have been a forgivable neglect, but when I started running into egregious failures as in the explanation of the 'rule of thumb' being the result of a law forbidding men from beating their wives with a stick that was thicker than their thumb (totally discountable folk etymology), or the durable myth of the the Chevy Nova's unsalability in Hispanic countries because 'no va' means 'doesn't go' (it means the same thing in Spanish as it does in English).

But there were dozens of the falsities, retreads of debunked myths, and they were mixed in with everything else.

When I read that the eggplant was a member of the thistle family, I closed the book. A simple Wikipedia confirmation would have shown that the eggplant, like the tomato, bell pepper, etc. is a member of the nightshade family, not the thistles.

When a book purports to be factual, there ought to be at least a modicum of fact checking. I know have to discount everything I've read in it as possibly wrong. It doesn't matter that some of it may be correct, I have no way of knowing what is and isn't and I'm not going to do Mr. Botham's work for him.

It was a waste of money, time, and brain activity. I read a third of the book and I got out of it was this irritable article.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Big DeRezz

Variation Number 1 on the theme of avatars.
This is a bit of a put-on or, some might say, a take off on the old hard-boiled, two-fisted, gumshoe detective novel of the Mickey Spillane genre. Ellipses will protect those of you with tender sensibilities and provide room for all kinds of imagined kinkiness.
This is for Surasa Tatham whoever she may be.

She pressed herself tightly against me. Her breasts like two scoops of vanilla ice cream nestled in the sequinned dish of her bodice. What I could see of the rest of her gown was gauzy and multi-colored, a kind of formal strumpetware, not that I was complaining. Clarisse was the type of pneumatic blonde who could give Mike Hammer a heart attack.

We stood at the bar, my shot of generic whiskey and her steaming, bubbling concoction in a baroquely detailed goblet on the mahogany surface between us and the bartender.

"You're looking good tonight, Clarisse," I said.

She blushed. I was impressed by the natural response. It's not easy to achieve.

"Thanks Jake."

I pried her off me long enough to remove my fedora and trench coat. "Come dance with me and we'll keep this private." The Club Casablanca was bustling but there were a few open spots left on the dance floor.

The club was an odd mix of styles; 1940 US noir, complexly Moorish architecture and art-deco furnishings. The ambient light was dim. On one side of the room were tall arches their symmetry broken by a few palm fronds beyond to remind us of the garden and beach between the stonework and the calm ocean with its silver snail trail of moonlight.

Huge black and white posters of Bogart and Bergman gazed down from the wall above the empty bandstand. The music was lush and sensual. A little placard in the corner near the piano displayed the album cover; "All for You" by Dianna Krall.

The club reflected the odd mind of its owner, the voluptuous beauty waiting for me impatiently.

"C'mon" said Clarisse. I stepped into the empty spot in front of her and she moved into my arms. I held her close as we moved swinging and dipping to the music and had a private chat.

"What's going on?"

"Some developers want to tear down the club and put in a marina."

"Any chance of them succeeding?"

"They're offering RIONCorp more than I can match."

"So, what can I do?"

"Oh Jake! I don't know ... You know how it works around here, money and property trumps style."

"It's the same outside, babe."

"I hoped you could think of something. Nothing I've done makes enough money. No-one is renting the apartments next door. Five nights out of the week the club is empty ..."

"I'll have to think about it. It's not my usual kind of problem."

"I know Jake. I just need some different thinking ... and you're the best I know for that."

"Thanks Clarisse, But you don't need to flatter me. I'll do anything I can for a friend. Who's been putting the squeeze on you ... anyone I know?"

"Harry Lime."

"That bunch? I'll do what I can, but be careful."

We left the dance floor. I put on my coat and hat.

"Here's looking at you, kid," I said with a wink, and left.

The next day was dark, dreary and drizzling in Redlight. I'd tracked down an identity thief; a sad little newbie with no style of his own had glommed a clone of one of the minor underworld characters. I explained his transgression to him gently but firmly, extracted a small fine as payment, and told him to go and sin no more. I sent the fine minus my collector's fee to the RIONCorp offices with the usual explanation.

I met the client in Podevash, his strange nightclub that focussed on leather kink. I liked the bi-lingual pun but wondered how many times he'd had to explain the joke to a customer.

I had my usual generic whiskey, but he was intent on making sure that I knew he was drinking from a bottle with a high res copy of a Lagavullin label. I collected my fee, explained that I'd keep the identity of the newbie confidential unless it happened again.

The club was nearly empty. I asked him if people got the same kick out of the fetish when they couldn't smell the leather, and he admitted that business was bad.

I left him, nursing his fancy tipple, in his kinky environment.

I got into my black Hudson Commodore parked in front. A moment later I stepped out of it and onto a sunny, bright, blue-sky, wide-beach island. I parked in front of a row of 10 townhouse style apartments behind the Club Casablanca. Five of them had small boxes showing that they were unoccupied and available. I deposited six month's rent, somewhat more than I'd just collected, in the box to transfer it to Clarisse' account, and got the key in exchange.

I changed from my PI wardrobe (double-breasted grey suit, white shirt, wide tie, black shoes, fedora, trench-coat) into my typical casual wear of an open-necked blue cotton button-down shirt, loose jeans and some sandals.

It took me a couple of minutes to unpack. I live simply. I laid a Persian-style rug on the floor in front of the fireplace, placed a brown leather couch against the opposite wall, added a couple of armchairs and a coffee table. I hung some high-res repros of Japanese woodblock prints on the wall and set a chessboard with the problem I was solving on the coffee table.

Upstairs I put down a wall to wall futon and went out on the balcony. In the distance I saw someone wave. I went downstairs, out the front door and put some chairs on the tiled terrace in front of my new digs just as Clarisse strolled up. She wore a low cut white blouse with lace to frame her cleavage, and bluejeans so tight that, if there were flesh involved, the pressure would have increased her bust.

"Hiya," I said, sitting down on a wicker loveseat.

"You didn't have to do that," she said squeezing in next to me. "I know you loved your place in Milkwood."

"Not a big deal," I replied. "The timezone disparity was giving me headaches and there was no one awake to gab at 4am GMT."

"Well it's a big deal to me," she whispered. "Touch this ... " She held out a scripted object. I trusted her, so I touched it ... and suddenly we were pressed tightly together, our mouths found each other whisps of her blonde curls drifted between our eyes. Then she had me touch something else.

* * *

Three weeks later, through advertising and special events, we'd built up traffic to the club enough for Clarisse to counter the takeover bid. Then we were hit by vandals.

I was doing some tracer work when I got the alert. By the time I got to the club Clarisse was standing in the middle of the room watching the walls melt. I changed mode so I could see corruptions in the code as discolorations. We ripped everything down and rebuilt from backup. It took a couple of hours but we got it up and running before the evening crowd arrived. We repaired the apartments the next day. Then I drove the Hudson over to the mainland shopping district.

The Enraptor Emporium was still in business, unfortunately. I'd investigated the proprietors a couple of times for some nasty ID-jackings, but they'd either bought off the complainers or maybe even RIONCorp's lawyers. The storefront looked the same, but I could see that they'd expanded their real estate both out and up. The store now took up the entire block and towered five stories above the street. I wondered if there was expansion below ground level.

As I walked up, the doorman offered me a landmark card. I shrugged him off, and went in. The store was self-service, but I must have tripped an alarm. A dozen steps in, the green-haired, silver-eyed piece of nastiness named Harry Lime materialized in front of me.

"What the Hell are you doing here, Jake?" In spite of his name, he always seemed more like Peter Lorre than Orson Welles.

"Nice to see you too, Harry."

"Get out!"

"Not until we have a little chat."

"We have nothing to talk about," said a new voice. A willowy brunette stepped out from behind a curtain. She was wearing a whisp of gauze that kept going transparent. It might have been distracting if I were more trusting.

"New persona, Rickie?" Last time I'd seen Rickie he'd been in a white zoot suit with a Tommy gun.

"You're not welcome here."

"I'm just here to tell you to lay off of my friends."

"What? You're here to protect that little bimbette?" Harry moved in front of me; right in my face.

"That's right. Back off and leave the club alone."

"Jake you're so dumb that it embarasses me that I find you such a pain in the ass." Rickie's voice seemed to come from nowhere. I spun around to find him behind me. He had an object shaped like an old blackjack. I just caught a glimpse of it as it came up and hit me between the eyes.

I de-rezzed.

I grabbed the wheels of my chair and moved back from the desk. I spun my chair, and rolled to the bookcase to grab the last CDR I burned. It took me hours to restore from backup ... too long.

When I got back the club, the apartments, and Clarisse were gone. I left messages, I checked with her friends and her best customers ... when I could find them ... when they would talk to me. There was a field tuned to me around the emporium, and I couldn't get in.

But I have resources. I don't have to play nice. I know addresses for Harry and Rickie. One of these days ... one of these days ... they'll open something they shouldn't, they'll touch an unfamiliar object, run a new script, and something will happen.

Even their backups won't save them.

Animo Ex Machina

Variation Number 2 on the theme of avatars

It seemed to be Spring. The windows were open and the curtains fluttered. There were lilacs in bloom outside.

I was waiting. I sat on the green corduroy cushions of a Morris chair near one of the two windows, my feet up on a blocky ottoman, an open book in my hands and waited. The room was perfect. Crammed bookshelves lined the walls, books stacked neatly rather than my own helter-skelter, Japanese woodblock prints occuping what little wall space was left. A simple library desk was under the other window, papers were scattered over its surface, weighted down by a couple of open books. and a fountain pen in an inkwell. All the wood was dark and polished. The floor around the Persian rug gleamed. The furniture gleamed. A recording of flute and harpsichord sonatas played from invisible speakers.

In a way it was the room in which I'd always imagined myself writing, but I had nothing to write. I had nothing to read except the book with blank pages that I held. Nothing to do but wait.

But there was also something subtly wrong. There was no dust, no scent of lilacs on a non-existent breeze, or of oil soap, or of the mustiness of books. I noticed, with some amusement, a pipe rack on the low table near me and an ashtray with a pipe fuming in it on the arm of the chair. It had been years since I had last smoked a pipe. But, as with the rest, there was no odor ... no scent of the pungent Latakia with which my favorite tobacco was laced.

It wasn't hard to wait, I was used to it. I had woken in the chair a few minutes ago and I knew it wouldn't take long.

The tapping sound that indicated footsteps started and I knew that she would be with me in a few seconds. I turned the book over and rested the open pages on the knee of my jeans. I reached for the pipe involuntarily, took a puff and blew a smoke ring just as she opened the heavy oak door.

She carried a tea service on a large tray. I noted that she wouldn't have had a hand free to open the door.

"Hello dear." she said as she crossed the room and put the tray on the low table. "It's your favorite ... Lapsang Souchong."

She handed me a steaming cup. I took it, having somehow laid the pipe down again. The book was gone as if it had never existed. I thought that it was a bit sloppy. She took a cup herself and collapsed gracefully into a lotus pose. I took a sip of the steaming liquid that though flavorless, odorless, and without temperature was supposed to be tea.

"How are you today?" she asked.

I decided to let the script play for a bit.

"I've written a few more pages," I said, although, of course, I'd done nothing of the kind.

"That's good," she said. "I'm glad you're being productive."

"What did you do this morning?" I sat back and provided the appropriate responses as she listed the events of her day. The curtains at the window continued to move in the breeze. Odorless, smoke continued to rise from the pipe. Heatless steam continued to rise from the teapot and cups.

She paused. I smiled dutifully. She was done with her catalog of events. It was time. I leaned forward startling her. This wasn't part of the script.

"You have to let me go," I said.


I shook my head. It should have been in caps with a question mark to provide the proper emphasis, but it was okay, I knew what she meant and how she meant it.

"You're hanging on to a life we never had," I told her, the perfect life that we never could achieve and wouldn't have known how to cope with anyway."

"Who is this?"

"You know who it is. Who else could it be? You spent so much time digitizing the photos, creating the environment, giving this digital husk so much of what its original wanted. You put in so much effort creating an environment to help the creativity of a non-creative entity."


"Yes, Hon, but only briefly." There was a pause. I knew what was going on. We'd lived together too long for me not to know all the bits and pieces of her life, her habits, her coping mechanisms. She would stare at the screen in shock, then with suspicion. She'd sit back and light a cigarette which unlike my fuming pipe would sputter and smoke and coat the walls with a brown haze.

The ashtray next to the computer was probably already overflowing with ash and filtertips. She'd take a sip of coffee and try to figure out if someone was running a scam on her ... and she would start to hope ... about ... now.

"John is that really you?"

"Ask me a question." She did. I answered it.


"No, it's just me."

"It has to be you. No-one else would use that old joke."

"Listen to me Hon," I said. "This is important."

"How can this happen?"

"Just be quiet and listen. I don't have a lot of time. Can you do that for me?"


"I want you to destroy all this; the house, the room, the garden, me ... everything."


There we go, I knew she'd find the caps key.

"Just listen. This was never us. This was never how we were. We were never this nice to each other, the house was never this clean, our lives were never this calm and stable. I hated your ambivalence, your lack of decision, your aggressive selflessness. You hated my wandering attention, my rigid personal codes, my own lack of decision. We both hated that we were so busy trying to figure out what each other wanted that we never decided on anything and we went around and around dancing around what might have been.

"What you've created here is a sterile construct, a false memory, an ideation of the way we never were. You've found a way to give me things that you thought that you'd deprived me of. It is sweet of you."

"... and it is kind of you to provide me with those things that you remember that I liked to surround myself with. But you need to know that I don't care about any of it. It's meaningless. All it serves to do is to help you persuade yourself that this was all there was to us."

"But it wasn't. There is no dust, no farts, no toothpaste tubes squeezed from the middle, no dirty underwear, no laundry, no money hassles, no trust issues. All those things that we had to put up with from each other have been reduced to the sterility of perfection."

"I love you, and appreciate this monument, but ... cut it out ... get a life ... start over and make it work better. Blow this place up. Log-off. Get out of here and don't come back. Forget about me. Good Lord woman ... I've been dead for three years."

"John, I just want ... " I disengaged and let my avatar go back to its script.

"Well dear," it said, "I'm glad you've had a productive morning. I must get back to writing now."

It stood up from the chair without the groan of effort that it would have needed from me, walked over to the desk and started to make scribbling motions over the perpetually blank pages. I watched for a moment or two as she tried to get it to respond. I hoped that she would give up soon and think about what I'd said.

Maybe she would finally come to understand the last few minutes as the gift it was intended to be. I'd have to settle for not knowing. I was out of time. I pulled out of the wires, the chips, the tickle of electrons rushing through them. I pushed back from the hot pungence of silicon, and copper. I let go of the metal and plastic boxes.

I let go and floated away. The breeze was lighty fragrant with the smell of lilacs.

A Reason to Not Write

The old gods call to me, chiding,
through the bodies of dead dryads
pulverized by metal grinders,
soaked, sieved, pressed into
consistency and transformed
from the rough coarse bark
and the sweet heartwood,
from the interweaving
of twigs and branches,
from the chaotic joy of life,
into mathematical linearity
of bleached white planes
covered with blue and red
maps prescribing the discipline
and direction of thought,
drilling the letters,
the words, the phrases,
the spaces, the breath
into obsessive rank and file
(my shaky hand making them
slouch like raw recruits
on the white ground ...
unkempt, disshevelled).

The old gods chide me
from the forest, whispering
from the sea, bubbling.
The kraken mourns its
stolen inky avatar,
ripped unborn from its body
pounded, dried, compounded
yet retaining its essence.
See how a drop of the black
soul of the deep sends its
vestigial tentacles into
the fibers of the paper
(is it searching for food
are the minced bodies
of dryads sweet or harsh
with chemical bleach?)
With my pen I inscribe
the dark of the deep
on the reach of the light,
smirching the brilliant page
with the blotted approximations
of speech. The sheet cringes,
not from the ink, but from
the corrosive content.
The words of my song eating
acidly into its pulp and
changing ... mutating
degrading it far more
than the mutilation of
mechanical separation
and symmetricality.

The old gods chide me.
Conspiring, they whisper
in my ear and tickle
the tympanum
with their sly confidence.
"Why," they sussurate,
"Why do you use us three
so callously?" Three?
I think, the wood, the ink
and ...? "Song" they hiss.
The words will live if sung.
But you, tyrant, sentence them
unheard, and merely imagined,
to a silent crypt, a soundless
coffin made of our bodies and
our blood, trapping them in
a senseless limbo alone,
unvoiced, in neat sarcophogi
of lineated pulp nailed shut
with spikes of ink

A Steller's Jay

I live, temporarily, with my oldest son, his wife and daughter in a suburb of Seattle. People here work (or worked) for Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Boeing and similar or supporting businesses.

The plots here are the size of postage stamps. As evidence of the area's growth, a single home across the street from my window was razed, the plot divided into thirds and a new house built on each and, as if to demonstrate the new economic reality, all three houses remain unsold.

It is sad that this boom and bust minimized the land surrounding the houses since most people will find it difficult to put in a vegetable garden to help out in these challenging days. My daughter-in-law has done her best though and a small set of raised beds now graces the front yard where some bedraggled rose bushes used to reign.

My window looks out over this tiny plot of perhaps 100 square feet or so, with a bamboo trellis for pea vines and a small but thoughtful selection of vegetables in an area surrounded by stones and only briefly shaded by the shore pine that stands up near the sidewalk. The steepness of the slope on which the house is built means that my window on the third floor is only slightly above street level (the driveway descends from the street at about a 20 degree angle and getting the mail is like climbing Monadnock). Well ,,, perhaps I exaggerate

There are several well-kempt cats in the neighborhood who strut by regally seemingly under the impression that they own it all (and who is to say that they do not), but they are not indulging in their usual perambulations this morning. so I have been watching a Steller's jay, with a fine jaunty crest and a raucous laugh, flit between the branches of the globular crest of the small pine and the ground.

I started watching him just to make sure that he wasn't destroying the garden, but it was soon clear that he was picking up his snacks from the area between the rows of seedlings.

He is a snazzy dresser, but a bit skittish. His head and breast are black or nearly so, fading to and irridescent dark blue. (If you are an artist I would suggest a pthalocyanine blue.)

At the moment he seems quite amused as the tiger cat named Walter and a white cat known to me only as "the ghost" have appeared and started to fight over a small and meaningless piece of territory on the opposite bank of the asphalt river. He balances on a drooping branch, cocking his head this way and that, not seeming to take sides but also not trusting enough in their focus to drop down and get more food.

In the time it took me to write that last paragraph, the battle of the cats moved further down the street. The jay waited a few moments and flitted to a high rock and is waiting ... just to make sure they don't return.


I walk out onto the porch.
The trees move gently in a breeze.
The sun is bright and warm.
A few puffy clouds contrast
bright white in the early morning sky.

A crow yells at me
from the denuded horse chestnut tree
(no buds yet, just the occasional
tenacious brown tattered leaf),
as I watch the blackberry runners
advance toward the house.

I go back inside --
the house is still asleep --
and measure coffee into the French press.
I set the kettle on the burner and slice
a thick wedge of bread and put it on
an old cracked saucerand drizzle it
with olive oil and dust it
with salt. The porch beckons
with its wooden chairs and table
in a warm spot of sun.

The kettle bubbles (at last) and I
pour the water, stirring gently,
careful not to clink the spoon.
Not wanting anyone else awake.
I put the lid on it.
The bread on the saucer, the notebook
beside it, the pen in the wire spiral,
and my empty cup wait with me
as I wait, and watch the crow drop
from the chestnut to the porch rail
to laugh at me. I push the plunger
and pour the coffee.

I tuck the notebook under my arm.
I grab the cup in one hand,
the saucer in the other, and
elbow the door open.

As I step out, a bank of gray
moves in to cover the sun,
a splatter of rain thuds
against the decking.
The light breeze has chilled.
I turn back.
Inside a child sobs.