30 June 2007

Getting the Paper

For some odd reason, the NYTimes does not deliver to my house. It delivers to other houses, house not far from me. But my street is not on the route, so I have it delivered to the church.

Six out of seven days someone is there early in the morning to take it in. But on Saturday there is no one. And my church lives in a neighborhood where men of impermanent domicile stroll about, looking for something to do. For some time after I began my subscription my Saturday paper vanished before Sunday morning.

Generous as I am, that paper means a lot to me, so I started walking over early on Saturdays to see if I could claim it before the law of the street made it public property. This is now part of my morning ritual – enacted between 7 or 8 a.m. I walk the 3/4 mile down to the front steps where the plastic blue bag lies on the majestic front steps of my neo-romanesque cathedral. On nice days I then take a slightly longer walk home.

Today’s walk was among the very best, as the weather is just about perfect. The sky is clear, the temperatures are cool, and the sun is still at a steep angle, casting strong shadows so that I can appreciate the contrast of light and dark. Daylilies have sprung up, tiger and lemon, the former tall the latter short. It has been dry for a few days so the grass is tinged with brown, and yet the border annuals, begonias and petunias mostly, are perky and colorful. They sit on their lawns like corsages, marking the corners and edges of the houses along my street.

My house and others have abundant vinca and pachysandra and ivy, the latter gamely creeping up the south side of my house. I will go out later and pull the pachysandra that loves to invade the vinca. Trees are now heavy with leaves, sometimes drooping too low over the sidewalk obliging me to crouch or go around.

Yesterday the park department came and tidied up the triangular park that is the haunt of our alcohol habituated habitués. A bronze statue of a soldier, memorial to the Spanish American war and thus with that rakish brimmed hat on his head, marks the center. By afternoon older men will be sitting on its marble edges to savor their pickled perspectives. Right now, though, the red and white flowers on the eastern corner (I cannot recall their name) are bright and solitary for me alone.

A middle aged man in ball cap and basketball jersey shorts and Velcro secured leg brace ambles up State Street coming toward me. We are the only ones on the long sidewalk and exchange greetings as we pass. He sits on a retaining wall outside a medical office, the only perch along the stretch of street we share.

At the corner, an obtuse angle that encloses a former museum on one side and the downtown Presbyterian church, I turn north and eventually pass the new bistro with its outside cafe tables. A fire truck stands outside, the men inside at a table. Two young slender women are eating gargantuan breakfasts. That is the time of life when you can do that and not worry.

I am now downtown, or very nearly, and walk easily across a main street that normally is full. I cut through the parking lot of the Congregational Church, pass between another park with its vagrant occupants and the town library, and that puts me alongside my church where my paper is waiting for me.

Now I take a different route home, walking toward the main north-south street that is half a block away. I turn left, south, and walk most of a mile straight down this avenue which is also nearly empty.

I favor the shadowed side of the street, mostly because I am very pale skinned, burn easily and have a history of melanoma in the family. When I lived in Texas I also learned to walk in the shade for heat reasons. Downtown the shadows are angular and sharp. The sidewalk I am on is veneered with brick, some of which is gone, chipped away at the curb edges, patched with Macadam. I wonder how long it will be before it is repaired. This is not the most important block in town, but will not get better for having decayed sidewalks. In the mostly vacant building a seedy videogame center announces it too will be closed for July 4th. Somehow that seems odd.

A familiar denizen of the neighborhood is ahead of me. He is probably mentally ill, as his voice is often loud and his conversation to no one in particular. But all I have ever seen him do is scowl and walk and shout. By the time I catch up to him I cross the street because construction in then next block has closed the sidewalk.

The main streets that divide town into its four quadrants also divide the richer north part of downtown from the poorer south. As if to mark that transition a vacant lot with grass and debris sits on the southwest corner. It is faced on the south by a tall brick wall with a grand old painted advertising for White Sewing Machines and Coca-Cola.

Actually, South Division is becoming a destination for the young, edgy, arts crowd. They like the decayed aspects because it mocks self absorbed prosperity. So between the bums and SROs are galleries and bars and other Gen Y / Z emporia. Crumbling cement cornices and peeling painted window frames are part of the ambience.

In fact, there are wonderful architectural elements here that have been lost to the tidier downtown. Terra cotta tiles on the old BPOE headquarters have Della-Robbia elk horns, even though the building is now a shelter and drop in center. Art Deco brick work winks from a row of hip probably failing art galleries. On one side of the street is a Hooters style bar, bragging about its bikini clad barmaids. On the other a gay bar with rainbow flags and a sign that says Sunday is female impersonator night. A colleague says that line dancing is big Sunday afternoons. Ah, the Sabbath.

Speaking of which, I should go to shul now. So let me finish this little amble quickly. At the corner where I turn, where an old hotel from the heyday faces a breakfast joint and parking lot, there is an old dry cleaner with a sign that us straight out of 1950 – Uptown Dry Cleaners – in smooth neon style letters at a steep angle set in a clean brown circle. Very modern for its time, very dated now. I head west, passing too many parking lots, including the one made from the demolished German restaurant I enjoyed once or twice in my first year. Hokey, dated, mediocre? Sure, but I sure do miss it.

Street repairs, something that seems to take place with no central planning so that two streets I use to drive home are closed right now, has left sand everywhere. It squishes under foot, like a beach. Heading north to my house I re-enter the canopy trees and notice that I am not smelling things very much.

I have noted this before, but today it leaves me wistful, as half the pleasure of flowers and plants is their aroma. The price of age, I suppose. Even a whiff would transport me back to days like this when I was young and summer was an eternity of time and space. I am glad for the view, which may itself cloud and vanish with the ravages of time.

Shabbat implies re-creation, that as the world was supposedly made in seven days, so each week is a recreation. Hard not to agree on a morning like this, “when spring and life are new.”

29 June 2007

Clean Your Room!

No water this morning, as the little notice on my door yesterday announced. Quite the contrast from the mess on my kitchen floor from a leak somewhere around my frig. It started while we were away (of course) and so the flooring around it now has curved a bit (cupping is the term I believe) and so I anticipate some expenses in finding the leak, repairing it, and then the floor.

“What’s wrong with our house,” younger son asks impatiently.

“Nothing,” I say. “All houses need work all the time.” This was a key reason we left a house in Texas for an apartment in New York City, and a key reason we stayed in NYC so long. I am not one of those men whose testosterone quivers at the thought of wrenches and screwdrivers and wall board. It must be done, and I can do stuff, but not well or cheerfully. So I have called the plumber to deal with the leak. He’ll be here Tuesday. Until then it’s mop mop mop.

That reminds me of something someone told me a bunch of years ago:

”After forty it’s just patch patch patch.”

How much of life is just keeping it going? The house, the body, the yard, the job, are all maintenance tasks. Any given day can be spent from rising to sleeping with eating, cleaning, fixing, weeding. On any day in the office I spend more time disposing of email and memos and meetings than anything creative. So when, like yesterday, I have an actual thing to do – in this case a memorial service – it feels unusual.

Maybe keeping house is what life is about. I am ready to admit that the lion’s share of holiness and virtue are not spent in heroic or glorious deeds but in wifely duties that are dull to the point of madness but without which the world would grind to a filthy stop.

That sounds derogatory, using the term wifely that is, but it is truly meant to praise the quotidian and ordinary which must be done if the extraordinary and exciting are to exist at all. Constanze had to wash and cook and care for the children so Wolfgang could compose and perform. Ann Hathaway kept family together while Will Shakespeare went to London to act and write. Picasso used up women like razor blades so he could give everything to his painting. Could any of these men, or hundreds like them, have done what they did if every dish was always dirty, all the clothes were unwashed, the bills unpaid, the house a wreck?

I am blessed with a brilliant spouse at home and a great business manager at work. While I would love more time to write, revise, and otherwise roll about in the creative bed of roses, I get way more than most; thanks mostly to these two people. So before I whine again about my overbooked, overstretched life and all that I wish I could do if I did not have so many chores, let me do a bit of praise for these two and appreciate how very good I have it.

28 June 2007

From A Distance

I always sit on the aisle. It’s a knee thing you see. Being over six feet tall, most airplane seats are pitched too close for comfort. Pitch is the distance between rows, and in most coach sections it is well under two feet. At least half the time the person in front wants to snooze so they recline as soon as possible. There goes another two inches.

On the aisle I can stretch out a leg now and then, but on my recent trip I was confined to inner seats mostly and I have a pain in the ass, literally a pain in the ass (right cheek) to prove it.

But because I took too much time buying my seats to and from Portland OR, I had little choice. One great exception was on the leg from Portland to Denver Monday afternoon. Graciously relocated from the back to the front by the gatekeeper, I had a window seat with lots of leg room.

I love window seats when there is something to see, and flying over mountains is the ultimate something worth seeing.

If people can be divided into those who seek the sea and those who seek the mountains, I am the latter. (Although I do love the water as well, which is why the pacific coast is heaven from my point of view.) And nothing is more thrilling than seeing them from above.

With my headphones on, listening to the pilots chatter I was enthralled.

First of all there was the take off and turn out from Portland, which is a city set between hills and the Willamette River. We circle to the north, going over Vancouver Washington, so I can see back to the airport and the city. Ahead I can make out the slopes of Mt Hood. Craning to see out the opposite side of the airplane I can see Mt. St. Helens to the north, and as we climb the sequence of dormant volcanoes that march up the coast. Each stands alone, part of what makes it clearly volcanic and not part of a range, and each has a crown of snow.

Hood has a tip and Helens does not. Makes me wonder when that will change. Hood is far enough away for Portland not to be demolished by lava or pyroclastic clouds (I believe that’s the name for the avalanche of superheated dust and rock that can roar down from a volcano). That’s what demolished Pompeii and Herculaneum. It may also destroy Seattle as Rainer is as close to that city as Pompeii is to Vesuvius.

Despite our speed we pass Hood slowly, it’s peak wreathed in cumulus clouds. The land is deep green, the pines like grass upon the ground. I saw it up close while I was there, smelled the distinctive Northwest aroma of the conifers and other evergreens. I could get very used to this. Have tried in fact, but never persuaded a church in the west to offer me a job. Sigh.

Climbing as we go, the land east of Hood quickly gives way to brown, and the land below becomes a living map. I can see how the western hills and mountains truly rob the interior of water because the color changes so quickly.

Below me the Columbia River is our guide, we literally fly above it. The gorge comes into view near Hood, and the Dalles, whatever they are, but I know from the weather maps on TV that this is where they are. Here is where the ecosystem changes and only the areas near water show strong green.

I see a road than snakes up from the green coastal hills and then, cresting the last ridge, descends in wicked car commercial curves to the riverside. My wife would hate that drive.

Towns become schematics of roads and squares and details fade to abstractions of shape and form. Passing into Idaho and Wyoming (based on perceived time and distance) true mountain ranges rise up, their rocky ridges cupping snow in crevices shadowed from the sun. I see the lifeless tips above green slopes that then flatten into semi arid valleys. Lonesome roads, the only one is a vast valley, move with defiant straightness until the land demands they curve and bend.

The mountains resemble nothing so much as a blanket left crumpled by a giant who has left his bed. The folds and shapes are identical, though made over eons not moments. How marvelous to see proof that the laws of physics are true for a baby in a crib as well as millennia of geology.

Somewhere in western Wyoming, perhaps not far from Thermopolis where we paused some years ago on a land journey, I see the remains of some volcanism. It is dry and sere here, and the land is splotched with black that looks like spilled ink. Not merely like, but exactly like. The spilling pattern is precise, only this time it is the earth itself that spewed this stuff and let it flow. The boil it lanced is also visible, like a pock mark on the skin. There are almost no roads at all here, there being nothing to do to and perhaps the land itself refusing to permit passage.

On the far horizon I see a line of haze that bespeaks the arrival of Denver, smog, plains. We are held a few minutes over the front range, and I savor the close up view at our lower altitude. As we approach, a vast grey black patch indicates where the thunderstorms are. Tiny flicks of lightning occasionally brighten the edge near the ground.

If the mountains are imposing, the size of this storm dwarfs the mind. I cannot find its edges and it exceeds my view. My mind now turns to the trivial and terrible tasks of missing flights and finding passage home. Tomorrow’s flight will be over the great flat plains which are truly magnificent but better beheld from the ground. That will not be my vantage, though.

27 June 2007

Hi Honey, I’m Home!

Yes, I was away because I was away. No posts because I did not take my computer along on a professional trip out to Portland OR. For some folks that may sound like, “I went on a wilderness trip and decided to leave my insulin behind.” How could anyone, including an almost daily blogger like me, do without their computer?

Change is good. And though it may seem far fetched, I did quite well without it. My hotel had a work station where I checked email three times in six days. That’s a far cry from checking three times in six hours, which is closer to my usual rate. And strangely, I had almost no mail that suffered from delayed response. Believe it or not, fifty percent of what I get is advertising.

That said, I am home, and back at the keyboard. And what I did is worth noting. But as Tristram Shandy noted long ago (and previously observed here so you know I am not unwittingly repeating myself) it takes more time to write down what happened than doing it. so I’ll confine myself to a few observations, mostly about my own neurotic reactions to things happening around me.

I’ll work in reverse order.

We got home almost a day late. As happened to me back in March when I was also on the west coast, my trip home was an involuntary adventure. It was almost a verbatim recurrence, ending with a train from Chicago. But there are some key differences, and if the devil is in the details, so is the pleasure of the story.

Monday morning we had time (my lovely spouse was with me) before our 3 p.m. flight out of Portland Oregon. I would have preferred to leave earlier but by the time we could make the booking, all earlier flights were either sold or wildly expensive. That’s what demand pricing is about. The cheapest seats are those sold earliest. As the plane gets fuller the price per seat goes up. As my conference had 6000 attendees, many coming from the east, many through Chicago, the seats I had available were vanishingly small. That meant only the worst flights were cheap – those leaving in the evening and flying overnight.

Arriving without sleep is no fun, neither is returning. Of the day flights that were not immensely expensive, the returning flight that left at 3:15 and arrived at 11:59 was the only one below $1000 per person. So that’s what I chose. Yes, I should have booked sooner, but officially it was a legitimate combination of flights, changing in Denver. Apparently, there is enough traffic from GR to Denver to rate regular service.

Anyway, we had the morning free and just as we were thinking about how to spend it when the hotel phone rang and a member from a previous church told me (from Seattle you should know) that a mutual friend from the same church had gone to a Portland hospital overnight and she was worried about him.

It turned out he was in the same hospital as another friend, not from a previous church but part of the wider communion as it were and someone I knew even longer. He too had been felled during the conference, and we had been to see him a already that week. Thus it was no great problem to go out there again. Heck we knew which bus to take and everything.

He was felled by hypoglycemia, being diabetic. The catch 22 of diabetes is that long term high blood pressure will kill you slowly, but short term hypoglycemia will kill you today. That’s why type diabetics tend to prefer to be high than low. But intravenous insulin is a crude tool. It is using a sledge hammer to crack walnuts. Gauging doses, timing them, is never certain. And at night, before going to bed, it is even more tricky.

I suspect that’s what happened to him.

We take the number 6 bus that goes up and down MLK Avenue, and get off at the Nike Factory Store. We cross the street and zig-zag a few blocks east to the Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, first to the emergency room to check on my diabetic friend and then to see my really sick friend. Both are men above 70.

It occurs to me that many of my work related friends are older, mentors and colleagues and such. I should not be so surprised that I am spending time at hospitals even in Portland Oregon. But that veers into the subject of another post. This one us supposed to be about traveling.

We make our visits, come back to our room and have plenty of time to check out and take the lovely light rail out the airport. I thought it nearly insane that New York has only one airport accessible by rail transit. The cabbies would revolt were it to change, though.

Upon entering the place we see right away that our first flight is delayed. Our hearts stop. The connection in Denver is very snug, 45 minutes. We checked the Weather Channel (zen TV is what my brother-in-law calls it) and saw no hint of trouble for Denver. We hear that there was a delay in assembling a crew.

We wait standby for an earlier flight. No go. The gatekeeper for our original assures us we will be there in time. I say we are at the rear of the aircraft, and could be waiting fifteen minutes to get off. She kindly, and sneakily, moves us to the front of the cabin. We breathe easier.

I enjoy watching the land beneath me in my window seat. I’ll focus on that experience in another post as well. Right now, I’ll stick with the Joe Friday. United allows you to listen to radio transmissions between crew and air traffic control. This is very cool as every change is noted before it happens and the reasons for it.

It takes me a while to divine the lingo, so I am not sure I get it right when, nearing Denver, the ATC fellow tells the pilot to slow to 210 and hold. The pilot had just said to the whole plane that we expected to arrive on time, even with the delay. But it turns out thunderstorms had moved into the area.

We circle for about 15 minutes. I pray they are keeping planes from leaving as well as landing. We land and then, third heart stoppage, wait on tarmac for open gate. That’s because the planes are leaving later. Good, I think.

Bad it turns out. Our flight left without us. We arrived at the moment it left. And being GR, there was not another flight that night.

Down the long, long, corridor to customer services. It is not full but we are not alone, and people need lots of help. We wait most of half an hour before hearing the obvious. No flights tonight, and none direct tomorrow. “Can you book us through Chicago,” I ask, knowing United flies to and from there from GR. He clicks and clicks and succeeds. We leave tomorrow morning at 10:31, arrive at 1:45 and leave on the 4:10 p.m.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have to find a room. They gave out all their vouchers earlier, so they will reimburse us up to $100. But we have to get the room.

I call Traveler’s Advantage, a service I enrolled in when booking my last west coast trip. They did help get me a room when I was way laid in LA.

“All our agents are busy…” I wait on the line, and wait, and wait. On the way to the terminal (Denver has physically separate terminals that are connected underground like Atlanta) I get an agent. English is not his first language. I explain. He offers me a room, I say yes, but the signal dies on the way. I try again, but as we are now underground, it cannot go through.

In the baggage claim area where hotel phones are located, I am waiting with TA in pone hand while I dial hotels in the other. One after another are booked for the night. I contemplate a night in the terminal.

Finally a place has a room. It is 20 miles away but has a shuttle. I grab it.

TA never does pick up. I remember that they offered me a free companion ticket for this trip that never came, rebates for a rental car that they refused to pay. I am quitting them with extreme prejudice.

We wait for the shuttle, which comes in about ten minutes. It is now after 8 p.m. we ride the half hour down toward the old airport (Stapleton) and find a our Raddison filled with people from the cemetery administrators conference. They are happy people, lubricated and merry to a soul. I wonder why?

The AC is out in the lobby. I am seriously worried. This is, after all, costing me $169.00 plus tax. But the room is fine. I order up a glass of red wine and some cheesecake from rook service. Yeah, it’s weird. The waiter who delivered it said as much. It was a weird day I say. I nod off easily.

We get out on the 7 a.m. shuttle, arriving at 7:30. Our flight is three hours away. We need to buy lunch (as they do not serve it on board, remember?) and go through security.

Denver is a major hub. Security is like Soylent Green - people herded through corrals. It could be “Brazil” or any other grim dystopic cinema I’ve seen over the years. I murmur to a fellow cow (using a different metaphor) “If there isn’t a roller coaster at the end of this line, I am going to be very angry.”

We get through the sluice, find the subway again, climb and ride up to our gate where we are two hours early. Good.

Our plane arrives from Hawaii. It’s a 777, enormous. Never been on one. It begins to load right on time, though I see from the monitors that already 10 percent of flights are delayed, often from late arrivals. It’s too early for the weather to be a factor, isn’t it? I rejoice ours is here.

Ominous bells and sirens suddenly erupt. Security breach. We roll our eyes and sigh. But all is well. Ten minutes and we are back on track.

777’s are sardine packers. Nine seats across, we are an aisle and adjacent seat in the middle in row 45. and there are ten rows behind us. Yes, it's that big.

It is a two hour flight, and I again listen to the pilots and ATC. Usually I can read a bit, but I am still to edgy, remembering last March. Besides the air is like being at 10,000 feet or something. I find myself reading over and over from my favorite brain candy author, Patrick O’Brien. Instead I read USA Today. Then I play bubble breaker on my PDA.

We arrive in good order, with a two hour layover. We check the monitor.

Flight cancelled.

That’s right. Steam shooting from our ears we find the Chicago version of United’s Customer Service Desk. Another wait, and another tale of woe.

“Traffic,” she ways when we ask why. Too many planes in the air, disrupted by weather. Had to trim the traffic. I can understand it rationally. Planes to GR are small. It’s a minor destination away from a hub, a natural choice for them to make.

But here’s my problem. I was supposed to be in GR Tuesday so I could meet with a family whose wife/mother died while I was away to plan the service for Thursday.

“How would you feel if you needed your clergyman after a death and he was not able to get there? Surely, you an book us on another airline that is going to GR?”

No. All flights from ORD to GRR are full (probably from other orphan passengers. I think of the ghost ship that carried Jews from Hitler’s Germany and was turned away from every friendly port.) They can give us a hotel and try, try, to get us home Tuesday.

I call Amtrak. The train to GR leaves at 5:20. We take our leave, and head down town. The CTA is slow, but traffic is slower as thunderstorms pummel the city. I see cars plowing through water on the Kennedy Expressway. Along the way we stop dead for a moment (shades of my trip on the samr train to the same train in march) because of equipment problems. I know we have 2 hours to get there, but we stand and stand. A CTA worker opens the door onto the open track. She peers and peers. My heart begins to thump again.

We do get downtown, and then grab a taxi to Union Station because of the rain. We buy our tickets (I made reservations on the telephone) and some dinner at The Corner Bakery (a local chain I like far too much. Their maple walnut bar is magnificent) and in due time board the Pere Marquette to GR.

It takes four hours, plus one for the time zone, and we arrive at 1030 p.m. A cab ordered by my assistant is waiting and we are at home by 1045, just about 22 hours later than we should be. And about $300 poorer I should add – hotel, room, meals, taxis, etc.

That’s enough for now. Ruminations later. I am so glad for cell phones though, and helpers at my church that ran interference cancelling appointments and rescheduling them. All is well that ends well, and everything ended very well.

One ironic fact to consider, though, in these two tales of travel woe. The first American city to offer scheduled airline service was...

... Grand Rapids.

Yes. The home of commercial passenger flight is among the least of the cities of modern Judah.

19 June 2007

Snap Brim or Pork Pie?

Taking a long walk this morning I see a fellow sidewalk denizen. Not the more familiar indigent or student, this is a man of sartorial substance. He evidently shares my notion that walking is the way to go.

He is tall and thin, with a gaunt face and horn rimmed glasses, and walks upright and intently, never looking down or from side to side. This lends him a forbidding manner, rectitude to go with erect carriage and correct to go with his tidy appearance.

I notice him because he seems to have walked out of 1960. He suit is close cut, his tie narrow, and he always always wears a hat.

This morning it was a straw borsolino, what executives wore on summer days back when hats were normal. In the fall and winter it is a felt fedora.

Seeing this man sends me back to my boyhood when dad would walk out of the house each morning in his two button suit, briefcase in hand and reaching for his hat from the shelf of the hall closet. It was the last thing before he opened the door on the way out and the first thing after he came through the door on the way home.

On weekends, when I was very young, I remember playing with one of his older hats, wearing it for effect. How it propped on my ears or slid back over my crown being too large. He had two felt fedoras, a straw hat for summer, a lambswool campaign style hat for winter. They were as routine a part of him as collar stays and sock garters. He was never a braces kind of guy, except when he had to wear a tux of course.

Hats are still common, perhaps even moreso, but limited to the baseball variety. And the etiquette of hats has vanished. Long ago they went on and came off at the door and were never worn indoors. A man tipped his has to a lady, doffed it for a hearse and held it over the heart for the flag. There were few more sure marks of one’s being an adult than what sort of hat one wore and how it was worn. The photo of my folks going of on honeymoon, foot in the doorway of the car, smiling widely, includes his fresh homburg. He looks very grown up though he was not yet 23.

But he was an adult. His suit was his Coast Guard Uniform shorn of brass. The war was but three years over. He has the look of a man who knows who he is, and a hat is what a man wears.

Today, I fear, a hat signifies perpetual boyhood not manhood. And with it the behaviors of a boy, now perpetuated into age. Youth is a good thing in many ways. In a man, a grown man, boyish things are simply embarrassing. I think I need a hat.

16 June 2007

The Hurrier I Go

What a weekend. And it’s only half over.

Number 2 son went off on a weekend canoe trip with his scout troop this morning. His laggardly quality made my wife murderously angry, as we have a lot more to do

Today it was finish a sermon, conduct a wedding, attend two festivals. I also washed dishes, swept floors, cleaned up a little and made ready for the next big event...

.. Number one son heading to Boston for a Harvard summer program. He is interested in urban planning and design and they have six week immersion program he is leaving for tomorrow morning. So it’s do the laundry, pack the bags, get the money, etc etc.

Tomorrow is also my last sermon for the summer. I am answering questions put by congregants, which essentially means delivering 15 mini sermons of a minute each. Wish me luck. It’s great fun but very hard.

Number 2 son comes home tomorrow afternoon, with wet clothes no doubt. We (wife and I) work that into our preparations to leave for a conference on the west coast for which we leave on Tuesday am. We should leave Monday but I am staying to attend a gala dinner whose guest is 42, Bill Clinton. Don’t whistle at my status. We’ll be with 2100 others. But in all my life I have never crossed paths with a president, former or sitting. I did play in a band to warm up the crowd for George McGovern when he was campaigning in St. Louis 1972 so I was close to the podium. But as he did not win, so …

So every one of us is going in a different direction right now. Very disorienting. Isn’t summer supposed to be a slowing down and easier pace? I remember impossibly long hot summers when I rambled through woods, played street ball, rode my bike, bought ice dream from the Good Humor Man, ran through sprinklers, and god knows what else. What happened?

“Why should be in such a hurry and waste of life,” Thoreau famously wrote. I cannot say if all this is a waste. I surely hope not. But it sure is a hurry. As predicted by my high school music teacher, with every passing year time seems to move faster.

Ironically, music is one of the few things where time stands still. That is, it happens in time but seems to transcend it. all the moments clump together into a larger thing so that the note giving way to note is not reckoned as something lost and gone but as something vital to the current moment and a foretaste of moments to come.

I think we want a life that feels like music. We want the days and moments to hold together like a song or a symphony, to echo long after they are gone, and fit into an arc and shape hat extends far into the future. Some days I get a fragment of that, probably more than most people. But I want more.

Somehow telling you this helps.

14 June 2007

Good Dog!

Last Sunday Arthur Phillips penned a lovely paean to his former and present beagle. Yes, it was about dogs and it was in the Sunday Times.

We do not own a dog, nor any pet for that matter. My younger son has begged us for a good for a long time and we have stoutly declined. When we lived in an apartment it was easy – too small, too noisy, and the rules forbade it. Actually only dogs were not allowed, but we were evasive on this one for a while to buy time. Now that we live in a house, and we see folks with dogs and watch other critters moseying about, it is harder. Fortunately, he has hit puberty and his affections are drifting more toward girls than beagles.

Emotionally, he would be happier with beagles right now. The sturm und drang of adolescent love is a miserable passage. So far he has weathered it well enough, largely by staying close to shore. It is only a matter of time, though. But I digress.

I grew up with pets all around. My folks had cats from before I was born. Mother told of the one they had as a couple that followed dad to the bus stop each morning and met him in the evening. He did not stay there all day. According to her, the cat came home after ‘dropping him off’ and somehow knew when to leave to meet the right bus when he arrived. Weird huh?

We had lots of other cats over the years, often the remains of litters born among us. I remember a fourth generation of a matriarchy that began before I was nine and lasted into my late thirties of not my forties. Others came and went. I tell folks that I did not know that one’s nose was for breathing until I left for college, for only then did the stuffiness go away.

And not just cats. We sheltered at least two dogs of long standing, an assortment of guinea pigs and turtles and other school day denizens. I enjoyed them all and know well the valium like value of a pet. So why don’t we have any now?

I tell my son it’s because we already have a pet, you. I then talk about the mess, the cost, the effort, but mostly it’s because they deserve better than us. My cynical self says it is a good thing humans tend to live in cities because that leaves more room for animals to go about their business unharried.

Truth to tell, when the boys leave I think we shall take in a companion creature. Then I may have the time and attention it requires. I suspect it will be a cat, as they suit me well. But a dog is not out of the question.

The poopy baggie thing is a disincentive though. Long ago, when I lived in Texas and had business that took my to NYC for the first time in my adult life, I remember my walk one morning.

Across the street I saw an elder woman walking her dog. She was quite tiny and dignified, with her long mink coat and matching mink hat. Even at that hour she had heels on. Without doubt she was a woman who was someone at least to herself. And why not, living there in fashionable Murray Hill, along Park Avenue within sight of the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station. Then I saw her pausing to collect her dog’s droppings, and then move on carrying a little steamy brown package. The irony stayed with me all those years, as it happened fifteen years ago. I grew accustomed to it when I lived there, but the irony of elegant upper classness carrying about bags of dog droppings never went away entirely. On my good days I admired their affection for their animals. On bad days I wondered why they could be so nice to an animal and so immune to other people.

Animals. The more we try not to be one, the more we become one.

12 June 2007

Fish Food?

It's been three days sine my last post. Where does the time go?

No, really, where does time go?

Long ago Bill Cosby did a comic bit called “Why is there Air?” reflecting on his college girlfriend who was a philosophy major while he was a phys ed. major. “She would walk around asking questions like ‘why is there air.’ Any phys ed. major knows why there’s air. There’s air to blow up volley balls and basketballs…”

Asking where time goes is like asking why is there air. Pragmatists don’t ask why questions. Origins are immaterial. Things exist, and our task is to figure out what to do with them. These people succeed wildly. Those of us who wonder why can succeed wildly, but usually only posthumously, like Jesus and Galileo. Not a rational career choice.

It’s a vocation, a calling. That’s an old and dangerous word suggesting God (or seem reasonable facsimile) is calling out and telling you what to do. Moses got called, Muhammed too, and various other prophets, most of them weird and best forgotten.

People who ask why do not want to ask those questions. Would rather ask how…

… to get rich
… to get famous
… to get a job
… to change a diaper or a tire
… to operate the remote.

Instead we ponder the meaning of money and the disparities of wealth, the yearning for fame and its costs, the purpose of work, and make a colossal mess around practical matters. Einstein is our icon, only there are way more of us like temperamentally than there are intellectually.

I like to believe we have a role to play in the world, that our nebulous nature somehow fits into the jigsaw of the human family. My cynical side believes we are those who would have been panther food in the bush.

Legend says that St. Iraneus, early Christian martyr, while being transported to his site of execution, begged to be thrown to wild animals so they would at least gain some nourishment from his body.

The tenth good thing about intellectuals, right?

09 June 2007

"Hut One, Hut Two..."

My keyboard is acting up. It’s cordless so it could be in the connection. Or it could just be old and wearing out. Who knows how long this post will take.

Anyway, I overheard a conversation between my younger son and my wife this morning. He is nearly 16 and sees himself surrounded by other boys who are far more accomplished than he, notably in sports and athletics. Poor fellow, to have gotten genes that do not play well in almost any recognized sport.

He is very social, and so team stuff really appeals to him. He does crew, which is a sport but not one that inspires admiration. In fact, the yearbook spread on crew spoke and portrayed only the girls, so he and his buds were completely left out and made to feel it is a ‘girls’ sport they are competing in. Yea, that’s sexist, and my kid knows this, but right now his rep among the boys still matters. Solving social ills will take longer than giving him some street cred in the hallways.

But what made the conversation worth reporting is that I broke in to apologize for giving him such lousy genetic material and regaled him with my laughable career in high school sports.

… I was fourteen, a year younger than my son, and nig for my age, already nearly six feet tall and putting on pounds as my way of coping with puberty. The Phys Ed teacher, Mr. Haas, takes me aside in mid September and tells me,

“You should play football.”

“No, Mr. Haas, I don’t think so.”

“You’re a big guy. We need some linemen.”

“But I don’t know how.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

“Really, I don’t think so.”

“Weldon (I was called by my first name then), you need to do more if you want pull up your grade. I suggest (pause with hand on shoulder gripping strongly) you play football.”

That afternoon I was down at the equipment room getting loaded up with helmet, jersey, pads, pants and shoes. Mr. Haas told me to suit up for the game, and I could watch from the sidelines.

Well, notwithstanding my reluctance, there was something exciting about putting on the uniform - I was #74 - and meeting the guys. The quarterback was a grade school mate. He was not fond of me before or then.

Out on the field I saw these oddly runty boys, looking like trolls because of their outsize shoulders, tearing about the field. I knew the basics well enough, but the details of positions and plays and so forth – zippo.

There was a problem on the field. I strained to see. One of our boys turned an ankle on the last play. He was lying on the field. Two guys helped him hobble off. One of the coaches, not Mr. Hass and therefore not someone I knew or knew me, glanced down the bench.

“74! Get in there for Courtney!”

“Sure coach.” I knew better than to protest. I ran onto the field. We were playing defense.

“I’m in for Courtney.”


“Who’s Courtney?”

“A linebacker.”

“Great. What’s a linebacker?”

Brief pause to allow for a shrug. We adapt.

“Find whoever has the ball and tackle him.”

That I can do, or at least try.

And sure enough, a play or two later a running back comes through the line and since I am looking around to see what’s going on I see him. I take off. I am not fast. But fast enough.

I eventually became a center, a bad one. That meant I was delivering the ball to my old nemesis. Guess who got blamed a lot.

We went 1 and 7 that season, one of our wins coming on a freak play when we had 12 men on the field at once. The ref never saw it and we did not notice until later…

I do not know if it helped my son to know I was a failed boy athlete but a successful adult one. since 1978, I have jogged, run, and weight lifted. Sometime early in those years we ran into Mr. Quarterback at the beach. We had traded places, physically. I was thinner and he was thicker. It does not compensate entirely, but it helps.

Oh yea, I got an A that semester in Phys Ed.

08 June 2007

"Resting In The Bosom Of Abraham"

I had one of those Billy Pilgrim moments this morning. You know what I mean, when suddenly you are no longer in the present. Pilgrim of course goes to the future and the past, which I can do as well, but not as clearly as the past. Now that I have more past than future, going backward is easier anyway.

Well, what happened was that I was on my way home from the gym. It was about 9 a.m. I was sweaty and tired, especially my legs because it was squat day. I laid off squats for a while but now am getting back to them. They were especially hard today because I do interval training on Thursday.

Interval training is alternating a fast walk with a hard run. Just started it this month as I read how good it is for aerobic conditioning. I gave up long running years ago when my ankles started laughing hard. But short sprints I can do. So I walk two minutes at 4.5 miles an hour, then spring for a minute between 6-7.5 miles an hour, for just under 30 minutes, 2.25 miles to be precise.

I did that Thursday and was still feeling it a bit when I got to the squats today (after 3.5 miles, walking to the gym and then on an elliptical trainer. I did my four sets after resting my legs while doing other resistance work on my back and abs. The sequence is simple, ten reps at 95, 145, 195 and five at 245. I could have done 7 or eight at the end but elected to be kind to my quads and hams.

After that I do another round on the elliptical, and so you can imagine that I was feeling a little pekid, speaking of legs, when I left the gym.

I tucked Thucydides into my left hand and started crossed the lawn and toward the parking lot of the Big Boy – which always smells of deep fat and you tell me why that’s always so appealing. I think it was my state of extra fatigue that did it, you see. That and seeing the mom and two youngsters on their way in as I was leaving.

The younger of the two little girls was crying, which made me turn my head. As I looked, I saw that universal reach a little kid extends to signify, ‘pick me up.’ Far from being a major drama, I did not wait to see if mom did it, but the image lingered as I walked away, thinking how nice it would be when I was tired to have someone pick me up.

Or course it can’t happen, and should not. But a wave of longing passed over me as I realized how often grown ups feel small and weak and young and how we long for mom or dad to hold us or carry us. I felt lonely.

That’s when I slipped into the past. With utter clarity I remembered a moment when I was perhaps only four or five, 1957, fifty years ago. We were coming home one summer evening, it was twilight so the sky was not yet dark but the sun had set. We were probably coming from a visit with extended family, probably in Baltimore (we lived in suburban DC) and probably my cousins. I say this because while I cannot remember that part with clarity, I had fallen asleep in the car. Visiting older relatives was never tiring. It was boring. But my cousins, four of them, were my age. We tore about and played until there was nothing left in us.

As the car came to rest at the house, I was still mostly asleep. All I remember is that I awoke in his arms as he was carrying me up the steps and into the house. It was so nice that I kept my eyes mostly closed as I rested my young head in the crook of his chest and left arm.

He went all the way, in the door and up the inside steps and placed me on my bed. But what stays with me is the physical memory of being held. I can picture his arm in the short sleeve shirt, the hair on the arm and feel it even now, that it tickled slightly against my cheek. I can see his face from below, the hint of beard at the end of the day, his large nose and flaring nostrils. My bare legs dangled over his right arm.

It was a cool night after a hot day. The sheets felt good against my sunburned face, as he lay me down upon them. There was a breeze coming in the window, perhaps drawn by the noisy attic exhaust fan we had.

And then it was 2007.

I felt surpassingly sad as this memory played over me, as my father has been dead now for eight years. The desire to be held, cradled, protected, and the impossibility of that welled up and clouded my eyes for a moment. You really can’t go home again, at least back home.

And then I was glad, glad to have this moment, and to be able have it again. Is it not better to be sad about a wonderful memory than not to have the memory at all? “Teach us to number our days,” says the psalmist. I am.

07 June 2007

In The 'Hood

Well, my grocery store notion may not fly; at least according to a friend who is also an experienced local government person. He’s lived here his whole life, been close to the ups and downs of downtown way longer than me.

Another friend tells me that even successful leaders rarely bat much above .500. The best verge on two out of three. In other words, success is a matter of degree not kind. So if this idea can’t work, the idea of a cooperative grocery in my crossroads neighborhood, maybe another one could.

And then in dawned on me. What I want is neighborhoods. Healthy cities are made of neighborhoods. They have an integrity of their own that allows residents to get what they need, or most of it at least, from someplace near by. Modern developments do not do that. Because they are developed by a developer, the purpose is to sell houses so that the developer can make money. Commercial property is harder to sell, especially small commerce. and as everyone drives everywhere, there was no incentive or barrier to insure the growth of neighborhoods.

My neighborhood is almost one, but because I cannot shop locally, really, the residents are not moving up and down the street on their way to and from shops. Therefore we do not meet on the street. We are outside only to deal with the lawn. I am the exception walking to work.

When I lived in Austin Texas, our development was an enclave, and without a car a prison. Once when the car was in the shop I thought about going to the store until I realized it was three miles away, across a major highway, and that it was 95 degrees. I might as well have been in Alaska. Our first house in rural Massachusetts was closer to a grocery store, then and now.

Shopping areas, at major corners, are what focus neighborhoods. In NYC there is a food store every four blocks, and a news stand every other corner. Neighborhoods are physically more snug there. But life would be impossible without those shops close by.

So what I wanted was not a grocery so much as a neighborhood shopping area, a real one. what we have is two bad take out places and a seedy 7-11 with booze. There are some businesses, but they are not commercial. They are offices and so closed off from the public. We need fresh food, but also a drug store sort of place with household goods, a coffee shop / sandwich sort of place (which does exist but three blocks in the other direction), maybe a newsstand. Some areas have one or two, but only one neighborhood has the full range and it therefore has real integrity and identity.

Make it possible to live where you live, and you might get a lively neighborhood. Make it necessary for people to go away to get what they need and it will only be a posh dormitory. Grocery or no, we need a neighborhood center and it should be right there. Now, how to get it?

In the

06 June 2007

Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries

Yes, I just ate a bowl of cherries. ‘Tis the season for temperate fruits. Our modern world can bring us tropicals all year long – the bananas and oranges and sorts that were once so exotic people gave them as gifts at Christmas. Today they are staples, part of every reputable middle class fruit bowl on the counter or kitchen table of every reputable middle class home. Apples are so abundant they too are universally available and reasonable.

I have no problem with them. But my taste goes to the berries and the tree fruits like cherries and plums and peaches. They are the ones with the narrow window of glory, when they are abundant and good and cheap.

Well, comparatively cheap. I bought a bag of cherries yesterday, the northwest kind as our local ones are still ripening. They cost what I remember paying for sirloin twenty years ago. But they were so red, so ready, and compared to what I could have purchased that would have been so bad for me, well, what could I do. They are disappearing fast.

What can be more satisfying that pulling one from the stem through clenched teeth, masticating the flesh to release the pit and then enjoying the momentary morsel of firm flavorful substance? The act of eating them is half the pleasure. Like mussels or crabs, releasing the food is part of the pleasure – the seconds of anticipation as much a part of experience as the satisfaction.

Like strawberries, each cherry can vary in quality. They range from the frankly sour to the cloyingly sweet, hard to mushy, fire engine red to purplish black. There is a correlation between color and flavor, skin tone and texture, but it is inexact. And just as anticipation is part of the experience, variation is as well. Finding the perfect ones amid the comparatively sour and mushy makes the perfect explode deliciously in the mouth, an occasion the brain notices. A bit of adventure is embedded in the whole process.

The first wave of strawberries has passed (they were as low as $1 a pound for a few days and I gorged while it lasted). The cherries will not last much longer. Nectarines are beginning to appear, and then the plums. Of course, the bush berries are another pleasure, and sometime in late summer they will be abundant and cheap and I will feast on black and blue and ras as I have the strawberries.

I thought age would make me jaded to the joys of youth, but oddly I find those just as grand now. Truly, ‘tis a gift to be simple.’ I am grateful that the boy I was is party of the man I am.

04 June 2007

Ranting Now…

… About nothing really important, but maybe it is, now that I think about it.

What it is about so many people that they cannot clean up after themselves in the gym?

Most every weekday I am at the gym for an extensive workout. This has been part of my routine for thirteen years. Before that I went three times a week, but even then I jogged every week day. Always take weekends off, by the way.

Over the years I have been a faithful member of three gyms, and this one I visit now, a new and magnificent YMCA, has a crowd that just cannot put things back.

Let me qualify that. They put things back, mostly, but very badly. Weights go in the wrong place, curling bars out of order, plates scattered about or ill grouped, collars and bars and other stuff left wherever the last person finished.

Most days I use the time between sets to restore dumbbells and things to where they belong. I even straighten floor tiles when they get askew and move racks and stations when they inevitably wander.

Now, I am no neat freak. You should see my desk most days. So why am I so intent on this?

First of all safety. We have everything from hand weights to 100+ dumbbells rolling around on the floor instead of on the rack where they belong. One bad step and someone falls, and they will fall onto large metal objects. Likewise, heavy weights are left on high racks where only the strongest fellows can put them or retrieve them. That forces people to do more than they should or work around them.

But my real OCD reason for this is that when things are where they belong everyone can use them effectively. Not only is it neat it is efficient for everyone’s use. That indfference to others is what galls me. It is selfish, oafish and benighted.

Most every day I find someone in there who has taken two or three sets of dumbbells and lined them up by a bench or on the floor for their personal use. They do not use them all at once of course, or in swift succession. (That’s called laddering by the way and is a legitimate technique). They leave them there and use them over a period of ten or fifteen minutes, blind and deaf bto the poissibility that someone else might have use without in any way compromising their effort.

It comes down to wanting to establish control. By taking the weights off the rack and putting them somewhere else they are saying, “I am using this and you can’t.” They glory in their power by walking off for a drink, using the toilet, talking on the phone or simply standing there panting after their puny efforts. But when I ask to use a pair they get all huffy about it.

The same thing happens with benches, btw, as this morning, as I was returning a pair to the rack (AS ONE SHOULD) someone came along and plopped onto the bench I just left. Now, as a veteran gym rat, I know how to tell if a bench is being used, and always pause before assuming an empty bench is vacant.

Of course, my other problem is that no matter how often I return weights to where they belong, and even clean up as I go, people watching me do it will still leave things where they are, put them back in whatever location they fancy and otherwise ignore the rules.

Yes, I know, I am enabling. But I grew up when one was taught to ‘set a good example.’ Can’t break the habit now. In all honesty, I am resigned to this sysiphean task and try to treat it is a Buddhist monk does a sand painting, to be done and then to let it be undone.

But as I did it again this morning, unable to find my Buddhist center and therefore steaming silently, I realized that this was a metaphor for our political problem as a society. To explore this, roll on over to the Ranting Rev…

02 June 2007


On the way home from Costco, where it is impossible or maybe illegal to spend less than $100, we encountered our first summer shower this year. I should say that my elder son was at the wheel, just recently licensed to do this, by the way. Nothing amiss, just a detail to help you imagine.

We arrived home as the rain was at its heaviest. Our house is a scant thirty feet from the garage, and there was no sign it would abate soon, so I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pant legs. Son looked quizzical, and I explained it was better to have wet feet than wet leather. The disposed articles went into the box with the items we had purchased and we raced.

Soaked. In that short time we were nearly as wet as if we had fallen into a pond. Arriving at the back door inside the cover of the screen porch, our hair hung like rodents washed up from sewers. My efforts to save my shoes was made the worse, as now the insides were wet….

… Flashback more than thirty years to a summer day on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I am with my fiancée and her parents (later wife and in-laws) to visit the pater familias, a very old, very squat, frog voiced chain smoking man of little hair or vision who spent every afternoon in front of the TV watching “his stories,” the soaps.

Cap’n is what I called him, a local honorific from when he was a big man in this tiny town on an island in the Chesapeake, now connected by causeway to the mainland.

I could hardly understand him, so thick was his voice with age, tobacco and the local accent. He smiled though, revealing much gum and few teeth. That was good, the smile part I mean. Her daughter, my future mother-in-law, doted upon him. She was not quite sixty then. He was past 80 then, and would live another dozen years.

We were spending the night, as it was too long to drive down from Baltimore and back in a day and do all that tradition required – visit, drink iced tea, make supper (wash the corn, snap the beans, slice the tomatoes and steam the crabs), eat supper, clean up, converse, wave away the smoke, wipe the sweat from your face, and so on. So come 10 p.m. or thereabouts we began to set up the various beds.

Capn’s house was used to visitors. Lots of ‘em at times. He slept in the downstairs bedroom. The two bedrooms upstairs were a men’s and women’s dorm when the whole family came in. Even so, I was a challenge, and it was agreed I should bunk on the screen porch out front.

Being a very warm southern night I welcomed this outcome, as the breezes played nicely across my sheets and the tall boxwood hedges effectively screened the very few headlights that now and then hummed past.

For a little while I sat there on the swing which was to be my bed, smoking cigarettes and taking a furtive nip from a little flask I kept for easing insomnia. This was a regular companion in my youth, especially in new locations. It was not long, though, before I felt my eyelids growing heavy and I lay down and indeed drifted off.

Not long after, but certainly an hour or more, I woke with a chill. The wind was picking up and the sheet was not enough any more. The sky lit up gently with far away lightning and I knew a storm was coming.

Coming from the northwest it did not assault me right away, as the porch faced east. I felt the moisture before the rain itself, and heard it approach as the lightning came faster and thunder which was all but inaudible marched toward us like giant steps. I thought it would be a rather sweet little storm, something of a cloudburst.

And so it started, but swiftly swelled into a squall and then a gale. The wind ripped around the house and rain threatened on every side. I lay on the swinging bed, sheet gathered to my chin, head on a clasped hands under my cheek, watching the sky go from black to white and preparing for the crack and rumble.

Despite being right on the edge, feeling the mist of the rain cover me like a cloud, my mood was calm, even serene. From my childlike pose I could see the sheets of rain running across the lawn which was bent by wind and water. The grass rolled like the waters of a stormy sea.

Far from frightening me, I found myself feeling safe and secure. I cannot understand why, then or now. By all rights I should have been at least excited. Millions of volts were forking down, forces equivalent to ordnance played around me. Rationally, I should have been afraid as I was as a small child. But instead, I felt calm.

As the storm subsided I fell back asleep in that wonderful way sleep comes and whisks you away in a sweet moment. I awoke with the sunlight that waited a little as it had to break the high hedge and work its way down the wall until it could pry my eyes open.

“We all worried about you,” my fiancée said. “Did you get any sleep?”

“I was fine. Never slept better.”

01 June 2007

Reptile Mom

I walk. It’s a habit forced upon those who live in large cities. That’s not true now, meaning my home is no longer a big city. But I still walk. Except when the weather is miserable – hot, wet, frozen – I walk to work and to the gym.

Back in the big city I also walked to the store, take out places, the news stand, just about everywhere. In this smaller city, more affected by automobiles, I can walk to the store but the store is crummy. It is more like a 7-11 than a grocery. The floors are kind of sticky and the most popular goods are lottery tickets, cigarettes and cheap booze. There is also a Chinese place, and a pizza parlor, but neither are, frankly, worth it.

Still, I walk. First from habit. Second because it is healthy. And now, in the land of $3.50 a gallon gas, to save money.

There is a fourth reason. You see people.

When you drive, you are surrounded by people, but they are inside their cars. Tearing along the highway you glance over when someone passes by, but if they look back you feel odd. Or, waiting beside someone at a stop light, you look over and there someone is talking on the phone or drinking coffee or picking at their nose. Again, if they see you looking you feel embarrassed. Sometimes, at stop signs they try to be nice and waive the right of way. “Go on,” they say with their waving hands. But the reflection makes it hard to be sure so you hesitate. They wave again, and just as you are about to go, someone comes from the other side and you end up waiting anyway. Most of the time, though, you avoid people while driving. The car is like a moving house. What’s inside is private.

Not so when walking. Even in crowds you know there are people there. You actually touch them on a crowded street. You also smell them – perfume, tobacco, onions, sweat, alcohol. Their humanity is right in your face. And they talk, nowadays on cell phones, but folks hold loud conversations on the street sometimes. Panhandlers approach you. Odd folks carry on with the deity or an invisible partner.

In my smaller city, there are way fewer people on the street. Mostly it is a place for the young, the dark, the poor, and the weird. Everyone else has a car. You do see people as they exit their cars and cross parking lots or go into businesses like the former gas station that is now a design office of some kind. And now there are the smokers, workers who now have to go outside, where they huddle like conspirators selling drugs or lean against the walls like weary whores.

Because there are so few people on the street, you notice them more – and they notice you, too. We greet one another, though strangers, and I am sure each measures the other a little, making note of clothes and faces and mannerisms. And we move on. We are strangers after all. But unlike the faces behind wheels, these people leave a mark on the mind. Or they can.

Reptile Mom was the woman shepherding two children that I passed on the way home recently. The kids were barely more than toddlers, a tow headed boy and girl. Mom was holding her substantial over the shoulder strapped purse by her left hand, a cigarette dangling lazily from the same fingers. She was using her right hand to gesture and underline her orders for the children to stay close.

I heard her voice, the thickened tenor of a woman who had smoked hard for a long time, though she was clearly younger than me. It rang of that tone I have heard from women who have been toughened by life, and who smooth the rough edges with lots of menthol and Miller Lite.

Her honey brown hair was pulled back into a pony tail, tightening the face and its leathered features so that her profile struck me as like a lizard. Hence the title, Reptile Mom.

She was not unattractive, mind you, but had a hard, brown, worn quality to her skin that made her older than she was. Her face also gave off the closed and cautious look of someone who had every reason not to trust anyone. She looked suspicious, even of her children.

I passed by as she was urging them to behave. The little boy waddled quickly away as if it were a game, his face with the triumphant smile of mischief accomplished as he turned and ran straight into my shin.

Not at all hurt but only startled, he looked up, his face still wreathed in glee. “Hold on there champ,” I said, pressing my left hand down like a cop holding traffic. I did not even break stride. He looked for his mom, hearing her voice, turned toward it, and I kept walking.

Not much of an encounter, but compared to the utter isolation of the automobile, virtually intimate. I smelled her smoke, heard her voice, saw the face move, the hair swish. The children bounced, the boy with the wide hips and bowlegged gait revealing a diaper beneath. He saw me, registered my being.

As I walked away I thought of her, her life, which I will never know. The appearances I noted, the things they brought to mind – that she was single, poor, ill educated, unemployed, under educated – might be utterly wrong. But a lifetime told me they were probably right.

How many such mothers had I met over the years, for whom a cigarette and a beer were essential medications? I felt her hair trigger temper, and saw the long arc of fear and abuse that she learned from her mom – I could see the upraised back of her own mother’s hand and the little girl she used to be cringing. I could see the desperate escape from the grinding contempt of her childhood, one without expectations except that one should misbehave. I could see the young man who seemed like a savior then, with his car and smile and lithe limbs that sang with muscle and excitement. And how in her attempt to break away actually assured its continuance.

Yes, there was a reptile reality in her, in which instinct and fear pulled her skin tight along the bones. Coiled, cautious, weary, wary, I read her life in her face. One very different from the child who laughed. But as I kept walking, I knew his face would someday be like hers. And there was nothing anyone could do to change that.