a hideous sibilance


So the guy in front of me orders his accompanying sandwich sauce, and it’s that sauce I absolutely love, but whose delightfully tangy flavor I have long since had to forgo. The sauce has a name that can’t, or shouldn’t, be spoken aloud without blushing, so potent and spiritually crushing are its delicate, sibilant particulars, its phonetic suggestion of fey, doomed humanity. We didn’t claw all this way up from the trilobite just to stand in a little line and delicately ask that Sweet Onion dressing be applied with a squirt bottle to our Black Forest ham sandwiches. Did we? Who wants to be illuminated so strikingly on the Sad Mortality Radar? So I order mayonnaise now. The word is comparatively robust and plain, despite its sounding, on repeat murmurings, like the name of a little French village with a water pump in the town square. ‘Sweet Onion’ is an inapproachable sauce name so alive with sibilance it collapses the Moment.



But this guy in the line ahead of me – he just says it without stammering or blanching, because he wants it on his sandwich. As if that’s reason enough. He just wants to taste the sauce on his sandwich, never mind that he has to pronounce the sauce’s name aloud to our common shame. He would rather have a great tasting sandwich than his pride. If only it were that simple.

For him though, this knapsacked specimen with his neck beard and staring inspection of chilled lunch meats through curved glass, it is that simple. There may be a lesson here. He isn’t afflicted with the crippling self-awareness that hobbles the rest of us when we are ordering sauces or buying chewing gum or shirts. What a grinding mockery our sauce orders invite! Our little sandwich predilections, the watchbands we lean over and choose with such deliberation, our carefully sat-through new haircuts and the mirror our beauticians hold behind our new hair or behind the reflected image of our new hair, so we can make sure that, even where our eyes can’t go, the hairs are arranged correctly and cut and shaped correctly, these micro-trunks of cracked dead protein sprouting out of our fool heads, so that people whose eyes CAN go there see what we are paying to have them see. Who do we think we’re kidding?!

“Sauce?” asks the wall-eyed kid in his visor.

“Sweet Onion,” the guys says, seemingly without hesitation. My skin jumps once and begins to crawl in earnest. I grasp the vestigial little ledge that is offered, like succor, by the Subway set designer. Who in his right mind would say that? Move on to another sauce, you dumb brute! Hearing the sauce-appellation spoken aloud I feel the tingle, the icy straight-pin piercing my groin. I’m about to double over. Who are these people who can say ‘sweet onion’, just like that, without a helpless, grand mal shudder? Who are these freaks? I ask you.

habitable region around a dwarf star

habitable region around a dwarf star
you may approach a dwarf star, but what’d be the point

Is it the dwarf star that collapses in on itself, the Mysterio inner forces dragging the sun-spotted skin and corona inexorably (always inexorably) downward into what we are assured is the uncomfortably warm nuclear ‘furnace’ (o’ make it homely and domestic that we may understand its incomprehensible anger) such that the gathering densities aggregate into a very tiny embarrassed ball of light whose spoonfuls famously weigh tons? Tons we can understand. Here I am, a Susan Polis Schutz (nee Schultz) poster, and I am that dwarf star or maybe it’s a neutron star I’m imagining. An inward collapse, a weakening carapace gone translucent with the desire to vanish, an upbraiding of passerby be they friend or foe. What is this thing called love. A furnace of incalculable energy that some would yet reduce to the status of a toaster. A half-light hell. Well it’s much more than a toaster or anyway is meant to be. So I’ve always supposed. Time will tell.


Alchemy Crucible

That morning I drank for about an hour and a half and thought about Brenda; the manner of her death, or the moment of her death. I would put it all in a box. It would need to be light enough for me to lift. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Joel’s knockout of a wife had been clubbed like a ham hock and thrown thirty yards by a refrigerated produce truck sliding through a yellow.

The broad bug-flecked plane of the grillwork saw to it that she would neither roll nor sidle past nor sashay around the frank inertial cruelties that wreak such easy havoc in these settings.  Witnesses describe the contact as hammer-blow-like.  Brenda arced obediently through shrieking summer air, following the famous immutable laws.  She would have been, by then, a worthless husk.  Witnesses describe a flapping rag doll the size of a human being.  She hit the asphalt half a block away and rolled like a stunt dummy.  The Bible says not to expect thanks for doing what’s expected of us anyway, but sometimes the brute ingratitude from on high is too much for the rational heart to want to bear.  There may be a dark and bemused comic mind somewhere, perhaps just drifting, like Donovan’s Brain, in a puff of ether.  It can conjure a plague of frogs and can execute a man’s wife by seeing her tossed like garbage, powerfully, into a row of decorative roadside bushes. Brenda negotiates a horizontal flapping pirouette, quite violently, into the bank of dirty pfitzers. Again again again. That’s the picture I see.

She was somewhat hastily buried two days later, on Saturday, but first the coroner had fixed the cause of death, which was one or another kind of trauma.  The funeral had been brief, nearly perfunctory, in accordance with what Joel assured us would have been Brenda’s wishes in this contingency. Almost exactly halfway through the ceremony, Joel fell down in complete silence, sprawled, like a vaudeville drunk. Those who rushed to help him found Joel’s expression blank, though not slack. The muscles of his face were prone, his mouth was agape slightly, his eyes were aimed skyward and dry.  He seemed about to say something. But the face didn’t move, and was mask-like, something to me at that moment as disorienting as the focused, intense stare of the dead. Trying to get Joel on his feet was like trying to hoist a corpse, or, again, a stunt dummy.  So we just held him where he lay on the wet ground, three of us on our haunches.

The following Wednesday morning at around nine I sat at my kitchen table.  I’d had a shot of scotch and was preparing to have another.  My kitchen serves as a dining area as well, and there are two enormous windows. My smallish back yard and patio were beautiful to see. Sun fell all over the place. The oak shivered restlessly in early breezes. Two red birds the size of flashlight batteries stair-stepped down from somewhere overhead in a controlled flutter-and-drop descent and alighted on the brickwork. I dribbled another shot into the glass.  The phone yelped like a Tourette’s patient and I banged the shot glass against my teeth. It was Joel.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one!” he managed through a kind of ongoing guffaw. It sounded like he might be laughing with food in his mouth. What could this mean? Why did it have to mean anything? I flashed on a snapshot-like image of myself sitting almost forlornly under a demure little reading lamp with a book on my lap, and I thought for that instant I might burst into true hysteria.


“’I’ll never dance with another’. Here’s a kid writing a line like that. But he did dance with another.”

“I know.”

“He went on to dance with another.”

“I know it.”

“Aren’t you something. My wife was butchered in traffic, you know. Remember Brenda? Remember her? Her body did not come apart, so there is that to be grateful for.”

“Well, ” I murmured experimentally, the booze encouraging forays into terra incognita I hoped might yield some traction, something to arrest the helpless sliding and careering. “This life is a kaleidoscope. You always said so.”

“Yes, yes. The box of chocolates. A dimwit in a crew cut selecting chocolates from a box.”

I reconnoitered. “Why don’t you come over here and have a drink with me?”

“And if I accept?” he replied with the sudden and disorienting air of a dilettante shooting his lace cuffs.

“I’m asking you to accept.”

He seemed to think about that. Then,  “No. I’ll see you Monday.”

“Monday –“

“At work?” he yelled.

“You’re going to back to work? You…you can’t. Not yet.”

“Man lives by bread alone,” he managed, through what sounded like a yapful of bread.


We’re slapped into stunned tears by startling and unearned cancer diagnoses, see our loved ones raped and murdered, lose limbs and senses in horrific leisure time accidents involving hammocks, oars, mowers, kitchen utensils, sporting goods. We bear personal witness to spirit-breaking tortures and massacres and mop up the viscera with both hands. An hour or a day later we are immersed, impossibly, in the full-bore asininity of the workaday. The limned fluorescence of the ordinary seems almost to holler. The clock on the office wall ticks like a rude farting idiot, ergonomically calibrated office chairs reach out with their thalidomide arms, promising comfort. Our little fabric cubicles assume the aspect of veal stalls; they are tenderizing us by preventing any meaningful movement. Staple removers begin to enrage the senses and one is tempted to gales of laughter at the sight of an office colleague standing expectantly before a fax machine, arms slack. The small trash cans yawn extravagantly and everything thrums with the unstoppable and banal energies of the river we are all famously borne down.

No one was more terrified than I when Joel entered the 10 o’clock Bettany triage . The recent and reportedly irreparable travails of the Bettany account were shining Grail-like at the far end of the small conference room; Stone’s laudable PowerPoint presentation of everything the team was dismantling through its ineptitude. When Joel entered unceremoniously and without a knock, a kind of suggested gasp befell the room. He was clean-shaven and hustled by with the ordinary alacrity of a well-rested but tardy office drone. He was wearing an unfamiliar necktie whose motif was visible even in the near darkness. As he made for his seat at the long long table crowded with suddenly bowing heads, I saw in a cinematic flash the timeworn and culturally predictable drama about to play out; the newly minted existentialist waving his arms, gesturing grandly, if crazily, at the explosive lack of meaning we marinate in daily. The stupid glowing PowerPoint and its pitiable suggestion of technology’s triumph of over whatever vagaries haunt us, the perfumed carcasses in their carefully chosen shirts and blouses. What a fat slow moving target is a marketing meeting to a newly minted existentialist! Fish in a barrel are more elusive than the ghastly nebulae of emptiness that sink down around the heads of assembled marketers in a meeting whose sole aim is to conjure the means to move unneeded product; a sleight of hand whose terminus is dust. Look at these heads, these sideburns, breasts, earrings, pearls, shoe tassels, wristwatches, collarbones, etc. See the swollen eyes and cleft chins, all the phantoms killing time as the river bears them away and away.

But Joel took his seat without fanfare and aimed his face at Stone’s glowing cartoon. A stylized seismographic line reached a summit then headed back down to earth, and Stone, after a pin-drop pause at Joel’s entrance, indicated this uninspired symbol of failure with his laser pen.

“Here. The drop is precipitous,” Stone breathed with stagy disappointment, tracing the jagged nosedive with his little red beam, clearly enjoying his moment. And why all the sneaking embarrassed glances, tipping and bowing and peeking over at Joel in the darkness, dipping their dumb little heads to sneak a look? What do they hope to see? What suggestion of the Next New World do they hope to glimpse in the person of this bereaved tick-tock man, my Joel?  Isn’t there something that ought to be said by someone in the room? Something on this occasion that might trump even Stone’s laser? But there is no right way to acknowledge this stuff, no standard way to die or to remark on death, no template for tactfully leaving this plane, or for referencing absent acquaintances who have done so. All these accidents and murders and so forth, in all the world! All the throbbing clocks that are suddenly or slowly made to stop ticking, in the cities and villages, in beds and forests, out on the open sea, on carpeted living room floors and in the monoxide midst of traffic. Living people are as various as the accidental and premeditated acts of physical congress that produce them, but the dead are all the same. There is a kind of magic in that transubstantiation. Is that why we imagine the dead as roaming phantoms? Transluscent ectoplasmic tatters of visible energy gracefully negotiating the winds between the stars? Supernature has its allure, but it’s been all but proven that there is no wind up there but solar wind, which blows everything away from the sun and its light.

“Joel, your comments,” Stone was saying, and at that I felt my complexion flare. I imagined Joel driving downtown alone in the after-work dusk, windows down, his thinning hair blowing. He is looking for something or someone, a friend, two friends; driving among and past the alleyways and shadowy declivities of the city, the shop fronts and hanging electric works of the place, civic light fixtures designed with love and a sense of grandeur, I imagined, by excitable men and women with pencils behind their ears. And for what? But a moment in the sun is no less enjoyable for being merely a moment, as they say. Joel took Stone’s gauntlet without pause.

“The ROI on the Bettany debacle is a stinker,” he said evenly, not looking up from the table where he had flattened his palms, as if in the throes of analysis. “Largely because we failed to speak to the target in any comprehensible language. If we refuse to talk to our constituencies in the vernacular they use in addressing each other, we’re climbing up our own asses.”

“Our own asses,” Stone mused, thoughtfully. He cocked his head in a gesture of frank reproof. “Joel, I admire your coming here today, but it’s too soon, I think. If I may say so. You need to be here, but now is not the time. You are jumping the gun.”

“Why.”  Joel’s response was absent the interrogative lilt that would have indicated actual interest in what Stone had to say. “Why jumping the gun.”

“Because I say so,” Stone offered without pause, in his own haste to have done with this episode retreating to the humdrum hierarchies of the office. “You’ll break yourself this way.”

Joel looked up at Stone and squinted appraisingly. “Because you say so?”

“Joel – “

“Your say-so, Stone.”

Then he turned to me to speak, and I recoiled. “She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

And at that Joel sprang noisily out of his seat, and he is hanging there still, his necktie a crenellated ribbon frozen in time, forearms reaching out of rolled-back shirtsleeves; strictly business. And the stars wheel and the solar winds gust and eddy through the firmament and the angels, all of them, are blown to heck by the tumult.

Tilt Your Head Back


Tilt your head back to administer the eyedrops,
then swing it forward and down when the stinging begins.
a brief but pleasant burst of vertigo as the unchambered fluids slosh
from one section of the braincase to another

As the head droops and minutely lurches to the
ponderous beat of a lumpen heart,
he wonders, apropos of nothing,
if there isn’t some
lamplit alleyway in a city or town
near the Mediterranean coast
where someone is vomiting,
sickened by drink or tainted shellfish.
This isn’t the much-vaunted ‘Sense of Wonder’,
but merely frank, workaday wonder.
Note: they are the same thing.

Light Bulb Specialist

light bulb specialist

He has a past, a backstory;
a lumbering, hushed sub-aqueous iceberg, inverted blue palace
whose inelegant exposed tip is this pissed off light bulb specialist.
He arrived here from childhood, is overfamiliar with every crease and spot
on his own face, his own forearms. He’s scoured endless days and afternoons,
afternoon upon afternoon, evening upon evening, morning upon morning.
He’s flipped through magazines,
regarded sleepily a rustling tree outside his kitchen window.
He was, though, spurned at precisely the wrong pass
in his stuttering growth from seed to sprout
to pissed off light bulb specialist.

How many watts is your bulb?
I don’t know.
Disdain like the gust from a graveyard.
He takes the bulb from me with the gentlest pincing of the fingers,
a scatologist plucking a fragile chunk of shit.
He examines the corkscrew brass for numbers,
gazing indolently through a Seussian magnifier
he has pulled down from some overhanging contraption.
The kids rustle nervously behind me.
15 watts. Here are some other ones.
Can I buy a higher wattage?
Depends on how bright you want the light to be, he says
through a suppressed gale of angry laughter.
The fixture is on a dimmer. Does that restrict the choice of wattages?
This crimped attempt at bulb decorum leaves him unswayed and still angrier.
His anger manifests as a quietude one is loathe to disturb.
I’ll take some of those bulbs.
How many.
Pneumatic doors whoosh open and the sun pours over us.
All our common lifelong zig-zagging about from building to building,
state to state,
love to love;
free-will wormtracks
in the fine powdery dust of doing.
Against the usual odds, my path
and that of the Light Bulb specialist intersected in aisle 3,
at that weighted, foreordained moment
and the embrace didn’t take. It happens.

Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty! (Behemoth II)

sam macroCheever, my mortal god, had it right. In his story A Vision of the World, a man completely at sea, vexed by the unfocussed oddness of life, awakens in the middle of the night to the murmur of rainfall. He sits up in bed and drops anchor by proclaiming to the darkened room: “Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!”

Sam graduated h.s. two nights ago. Cheever’s declaration (and credo) seems the very thing the assembled crowd should have been barking in unison, intermingled with the air horns, flatulent plastic trumpets, and odd bursts of extremely localized confetti.  All the shiniest qualities of humanity that inform our apprehension of the Wonder were contained in the convocation of jittery, mostly awkward teens awaiting advancement in ill-fitting ceremonial baggies and aerodynamically flingable mortarboards, pals and families rustling and yelling in the stands and grinning like idiots.  Like a Noah’s Ark procession the graduating class came down the hill 2 by 2, boy-girl, some of them waving triumphantly to the crowd like newly minted celebrities (many of these kids wore Ray-Bans), some, like Sam, skulking self-consciously. Some kids looked downright disgusted to be there – the Establishment wringing one last choreographed Subservience Ritual out of them before kicking them down the road to the obligatory Greater Things. We’ve raised Sam to be an aware guy with a sense of the weirdness of the ordinary, and his self-consciousness on that count looked to be operating at full throttle as he took his seat on the decorated football field among fake potted plants and looked around with annoyed wonder. When he received his (empty) diploma (slipcover) and shook the principal’s hand he ducked his head in thanks. Then increasingly aware of the faint ridiculousness of the scene he crowd-consciously marched to the photographer station nearby, enacting rather than Being, arms rising and falling, elbows levering outward; a chorus dancer crossing a stage.

To what are the kids advancing? Doesn’t matter. The celebration and hand wringing and hugging are an acknowledgement of forward Newtonian Motion. The kids are up and out and Destiny hovers like an angel of rough mercy. Decision/Indecision await, the spice of life. Love you, Sam.  When I drove over the rise and saw you standing in front of the condo with your girlfriend, in your cap and gown, my heart hoisted itself into my throat. When we parted at the stadium so I could take my seat with Judie and Stella and our gathered friends, at my prompting you gave me an initially unyielding but quickly warming hug, and something melted. This is an old story repeated millions of times, thank g*d.

Sam. Goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye! See you tomorrow.

Katherine Mansfield and the Numinous Machine

Katherine_Mansfield_and_the _Numinous

We don’t know why we’re here or what we are for. It’s necessary to live and comport ourselves as if we know what is happening, but anyone who says they know What is Happening is a liar or a nitwit or a Christ. In any case don’t give that person your Social Security number. Why do we have to be ‘for’ anything? Why must there be ‘purpose’? A friend and I tussle over this.  My pal holds that our idea that everything must be ‘doing something’ or that ‘there is a purpose’ is a quaint human construct that touchingly attempts to force sense onto what is essentially an ongoing and impenetrable accident. No. I mean, yes.

The universe is, if absolutely nothing else, a machine, like the heart. We didn’t invent the heart (the organ, not the romantic symbol). It effloresced within our collective ribcage over billions of years of organic trial and error (probably), and is a wet machine. Though we didn’t create the heart, it’s not blinkered human vanity to suggest that it’s ‘for ‘ something. Any 5th grader will tell you it’s for pumping oxygen around to our guts. In the same way, the universe is for something; it can’t help but be.  It is lumbering helplessly forward and the zany bits are falling away through disuse and the whole affair is becoming incrementally more useful. It doesn’t have to be a mindful construct, or a planned event, or something being steered by a ghost. It’s a machine, though, as in ‘quantum mechanics’.

What is the universe doing, and what is it for? What is it perfecting? What are We for in that scheme? What are gnats for? Why C02? Why the Van Allen Radiation Belt? Why dirt? Are The Life Force, Consciousness and Cognition useless parts that have no final utility in the Machine, soon to become vestigial and go the way of the appendix, the Passenger Pigeon and the MGM musical? These are the questions. We can’t Know the answers. We keep trying. Some of our confused, frustrated attempts involve meat cleavers, Improvised Roadside Devices, inebriated fisticuffs around Thanksgiving dinner, genocide. The bottom line, though; I don’t know What’s Going On. Neither do you. Our present station could well be at the behest of the famous Jesus Christ, or possibly The Creator is Hoss Cartwright, the large, amiable, horse-like of the three Cartwright brothers on the hit 60s television western Bonanza.

The writer Katherine Mansfield died at 34 in 1923, but not before taking up the modernist mantle and wondering aloud about the swirling wonderland. She sums it up with heartrending clarity in one of her stories and I turn to it with regularity for a good brief cry, and to be jarred. In it a wealthy, cosseted young lass named Laura, who anyway seems to show symptoms of being more directly connected to the Mystery than her dismissive contemporaries, is made to run an errand of mercy to a poor family whose young patriarch lies dead on a cot in a filthy ramshackle cottage in the steppes below the family mansion. She’s to take them a commiserating basket of leftovers from the wealthy family’s garden party. The errand, which Laura’s mother seems to foist on her as punishment for giving a crap, changes Laura completely, or validates what she always suspected but was never able to name. The curtain parts. Spoiler alert; below is the ending of the story. Mansfield sensed, as do we all, that Something is going on. What is it? It is Something and not Nothing, that’s what. It may be driven by ‘mindless’ mechanics. But it is Something, and often the heat and light it throws off are glorifying. As usual I thank you for your patience. If you’re still reading. Hello?


Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.

“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,” – and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet–“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”

Laura came.

There lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy … happy … All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.

“Forgive my hat,” she said.

And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.

He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”


“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”

“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.

“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.

Laura shook her head. She was.

Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”

“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie–” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life–” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.

“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.

Magnet Opus

whirlyWorldThis wrecked world is haunted by questions. None of the good ones are rhetorical: if we’re native to this solar system, why is our star such a potent carcinogen? Do Steve and Eydie now and again lean back in sumptuous, vermouth-informed reverie and actually discuss their triumphs, regard their trophies and show-business honorifics by late-afternoon desert light, or do they merely reconnoiter in a now somber, common silence? How do bustlingly crowded churches and pediatric cancers share the same room? Whence the friendly hand-holding Ghost? It’s a fact that Life is fluorescing around us in a cyclonic rage of unapprehended sounds and furies; the grasses bursting upward, the birds yelling, airplanes spitting fire and heat, snails crunching noisily along littered forest floors, their stupid eyestalks waving around to no apparent avail. Cars collide and carom all over the world, quantum whatnots doing much the same thing but with less visibly dramatic effect. You wouldn’t ordinarily guess at the presence of the roiling mushroom cloud we inhabit in our quietude. In this doozy of an astral plane you can be making love to the accompaniment of birdsong one hour, and in the next be screaming madly as your head is ineptly sawed off by a disgruntled scarved theist. Yeah, it’s a pageant.

But, oh my Word, also this. Two nights ago at the red naugahyde-booth restaurant, so reminiscent of the Officer’s Clubs of my AFB youth; the restaurant’s nattily costumed proprietor, in his superfluous, ceremonial red vest, stopped along a highball-and-plate-littered table to speak to a man dining gingerly, and somewhat awkwardly, with his elderly mother, several tables distant from my own rust-freckled naugahyde perch. In the sepia bath of the beveled faux-chandeliers, the scene was without sound but not without effect. The proprietor engaged the man’s mother in conversation, placing his hand on her shoulder as would a congenial confidant. She tilted her beautiful face to receive him and I saw that her expression was alight, suddenly. Her lovely eyes blazed at this sincere businessman, blazed with utter, unshielded delight. Not with a simple explicable smile, but with a clear, radiant and eternal expression of bliss, an absolute incandescence, a contagion. Then her grown son’s own face, as he watched the proprietor lean into his brittle and ecstatic old mom, became beatific. It was a circuit. He saw our god, such as He is. In the restaurants and restrooms and parlors and living rooms and on the graying daylit street corners of this sometimes crummy burst of color and feeling, He roams in His approximate loving beauty. God! Walking along, and probably a little above, a covertly beer-stained carpet. Edifying the unstubborn. Full stop.

Locked in the Vault of Heaven

voyager-1At dusk they arrive, the gangly nocturnals. They hop gamely  out of their vans and pickup trucks and begin to unpack their wares, this touchingly excited group of child-men in ankle-exposing trousers.  Soon their elaborate telescopes are set up on the playground blacktop and the local stargazers club are chatting amiably but intently with anyone whose attention they can capture.  They’ve come again this year to my daughter’s grade school to proselytize the Heavens, a bottomless and wholly incomprehensible well of quasars, pulsars, black holes, white holes, worm holes, accretion discs, ice giants, mirror matter and Seyfert Galaxies.  The universe. How to explain it?  It is an imagination-warping hodgepodge of the unbelievable and the barely plausible, and it’s everything we are.  But this is a tough crowd. They want more. The 4th through 6th graders have been flicking wildly in and out of the lengthening playground shadows like night birds, finding through quick reconnaissance where the adult sight-lines do not expose them and restricting their games to those murkier corners of the school grounds as darkness falls. The parents in their down vests gather in a kind of bovine cluster around the assembled telescopes, milling about, hugging their mugs of coffee, talking politics and staring furtively into the night. Where’s Neil? Where’s Chloe? Whence Amber?

“NEEEE-UHL!” one of the moms calls out in a two-syllable singsong. She’s wearing a demure designer baseball cap this evening, her wheat-like ponytail roping neatly out the back. Her hollering is swallowed by the dark. Night is falling apace now. The tetherball chain clangs against the pole in the darkness. Did she sound too anxious? She draws self-consciously from her titanium Starbucks Java Bullet. “Neee-uhl.’ she says again, sotto voce.

Ma’am, you won’t be seeing Neil just now. He is enacting an ancient program that predates the formation of the Oort Cloud.

Now there are several species of telescope on display, including one that looks like a stubby cannon aimed at the sky.  Another has a little servo-motor that moves the barrel in tracking sync with the dear old moon as She rises, a gigantic orange ball, and wanders upward with that phony nonchalance She has used to such effect these many eons. The old flirt. The captured lunar close-ups display on a laptop that glows like a small bonfire in our midst as darkness finally falls and the parental murmuring turns to nervous laughter. The lunar mountains and craters waver and flux on the screen, the skin of the moon a pockmarked tell-tale of meteoric abuse. Did the old girl take all those shots for us? Our thumbs and Eddie Bauer blankets would seem to suggest it. The parents gasp appreciatively  and lean in for a look. Much of this is theater. To most of us the dramatically enlarged surface of the moon is as plain and familiar as a Wonder Bread wrapper.  We’ve seen Her, walked on Her, talked Her to death. We’ve golfed on Her. We think we Know Her.  We’re bored with Her, but She’ll see us right. Now the kids have sent scouts in from the shadows and they are flitting alertly around the edges of the adult gaggle, taking in the vibe. Why must Neil and Chloe come in to stare at this stuff? They sprang from it, for goodness sake!  The complicated-looking telescopes aim at the night sky like squinting ninnies.

Finally the impatient parents have finished their coffee and begin clapping hands in the manner of over-achievers frustrated in their scheduling. Kids, let’s do this! The Next Generation of Leaders emerge from the darkness en masse like downcast zombies and congregate in a glum clot. Lots of little girls in hot pants disconsolately line up for the promised glimpse of Jupiter, the boys jostling against them.  We have a robot car on Mars and Voyager is poised to become the first man-made object to enter the blank frozen reaches of interstellar space. We’ve stalked the Kuiper Belt, sounded the oceans of Europa and incinerated a dozen hapless Venus landers that scarcely had time to photograph their own feet before simultaneously crushing and melting on the unpleasant surface of that compelling and expensive world. The kids aren’t impressed.

An older man in a very Earthbound mustache guides their untrained eyeballs to the telescope ocular and describes what they’re seeing, but it looks like a blob, or worse, a pinprick. ‘That’s Jupiter?’ one of the kids is heard to ask, his tone ringing with accusation. The old stargazer misapprehends the largely rhetorical question, straightens up and exults. “Yeah! That’s Jupiter!” The kid makes a clucking sound and takes off like a bat. The little ones have their own business to attend to. It’s born of the same machinery that fuels the suns. And the Heavenly Vault is something you need to break out of so you can begin to enjoy the evening.

The Various States of Aloha

Aloha and Bob 1942


My mother’s name is Aloha, and that’s just the beginning. She’s had an interesting and peripatetic (there, I said it) life. Her travels and her times have produced a card, a ham, a bon vivant and a wiseass. She and my dad were a matched set that way. As a preteen she would routinely climb out of her bedroom window in the wee small hours (as Sinatra would’ve described them) and roam the various Army bases she called home. No Army-issue bedroom window could hold her. Her return would usually be in the company of a base MP (Military Police) most of whom knew her by name within a few months of her family having arrived for the new assignment.

In one familiar story she creeps out of her parents’ Army quarters late one night and slinks by moonlight to the base movie theater where the scandalous Gable/Lombard film ‘No Man of her Own’ is playing. 20 minutes into the movie the MP’s familiar flashlight beam plays down the darkened aisle beside her. She looks up to see a resigned-looking white-helmeted base policeman standing beside her  “C’mon, Aloha,” he reportedly sighs. “Let’s get you home.”

Not Hawaiian

Aloha was born in Hawaii but is not Hawaiian. She was born at Schofield Barracks, the Army post that 17 years later would be laid waste by nervous Japanese pilots following the ill-advised orders that would eventually unplug their empire. Her father was an Army Colonel who had always adored Hawaii from afar and had finally secured his dream posting. In the full flush of his island fever, he and my probably less enthusiastic grandmother nearly named my mother after the last sovereign queen of Hawaii; Liliʻuokalani, which is unfortunately pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. In that case today my mother would be going by ‘Lili’, one hopes. It was a close call.

By 1942 she was a volunteer for the war effort in Florida, pushing crudely built model planes around a tabletop aerial map with a long stick, the better to differentiate, with the civil air authorities’ radioed help, the mean planes from the friendly ones in the air around the eastern seaboard. Cameras in space were still an Arthur Clarke daydream. She met my dad that year at a servicemen’s dance and the game was afoot.

Wheelus and Gadaffi

By 1969 she was an Air Force Wife. We lived on Wheelus AFB, just outside Tripoli, Libya; my father, my mother, my little brother, my big sister, and me. Quarters 4G, three blocks from the Mediterranean. We were there for all of a year and a half before Colonel Gadaffi rudely moved his belongings into the Royal Palace during one of kindly King Idris’ clueless junkets abroad. Shortly thereafter we were ordered to leave the country. Aloha managed to make a few waves in the time between our arrival at Wheelus and our gunpoint-inspired departure.

She spent much of 1969 with a similarly meddlesome gal pal, skulking around the foliage of the Base Commander’s expansive Air Force-issue home on a bluff overlooking the sea, snapping Polaroids of the Black Panthers sign that adorned his quarters’ front lawn, hoping to get him in hot water with the Air Force. They of course looked the other way despite his tacit endorsement of what was then considered a domestic U.S. terrorist group (but was in fact a strategically unconventional civil rights advocacy group whose business plan sometimes ran afoul of an entrenched, racially insensitive Establishment. Ahem). The commander, Chappie James, was already near-legendary and would soon enough be made the U.S.’s first black Four-Star General.  Some of my parents’ best friends were African-American Air Force peeps, but James wasn’t one of them. He fell out of favor with Aloha when he acceded to Libyan demands to imprison my mom’s neighbor.

Genevieve, Dan, and the Tuba Case Incident

General James, then head of NORAD, did famously finesse an orderly retreat from Wheelus AFB, an outpost of the Strategic Air Command. Chappie James foiled through negotiation what was meant by Gadaffi to be an embarrassing rout for the Americans and their base. Aloha was having none of it, though. As had many of the base’s residents, Aloha had objected to  James’ treatment of her neighbor Genevieve, to whose house arrest he had grudgingly agreed in the wake of her husband’s botched attempt to spirit a Jewish friend out of the country in a Tuba crate bound for Malta; a plot foiled on the tarmac of the Tripoli airport. Genevieve’s husband, Dan deCarlo, was my grade school principal on the base.

The newly installed Gadaffi regime—invigorated by the success of their recent coup—had been extremely displeased with his attempted rescue and in the placating atmosphere of the time our Base Commander had agreed to the new Libyan government’s terms of reprisal; orders to sequester the woman (a soft-spoken, unbowed French academic), strip her of all personal belongings, and send her out of the country to join her exiled husband in Japan following several months of housebound questioning.

Aloha and Stephanie Take the Wheel

Aloha and her mischief-making pal, when not busy trying to tattle on the Commander’s politically-charged lawn signage, contrived to smuggle Genevieve’s entire household out of Libya, incrementally, piece by piece. The success of the Aloha and Stephanie Moving Company reportedly involved some shameless flirting with the young, bashful and easily distracted Libyan guards. These stunts typify Aloha’s middle age. Still later she would become an avid scotch-and-water Bridge partner to my dad,  a gold-medal-festooned Senior Olympian in swimming, a Benson and Hedges-hoisting hostess to her dear friends and neighbors, all of whom have themselves left the stage. These various states of Aloha occupy her like the cozily concentric shells of a Russian nesting doll.

Judy Garland and Mussolini and Aloha

Aloha was very fortunate to have entered the world (Stage Left) in the midst of the sort of colorful epoch that favors the high-spirited. It was a time of intense feeling and color. Judy Garland and Mussolini were a couple of the players, for instance. It’s true that much of the intense color was ordnance blossoming brilliantly in the saddened skies over torn-up Pacific islands and ruined, smoldering European capitals. But these terrible conflagrations seize and enlarge the bruised human heart. It was, as a great Victorian artist with a poorly executed comb-over once remarked of another era, both the best and worst of times.

Aloha Lamour

Aloha is 89 now. Still possessed of her dark hair, her teeth and her attitude. She can’t pass the full length mirror in her apartment without stopping to strike a Dorothy Lamour ‘ready for my closeup’ pose; one hand on her hip, the other perched uncertainly atop her 89-year-old head. It happens without fail. Her humor is mine (antiquated and often indecipherable) and there are times we’ve had each other laughing so hard the Grim Reaper stirs, puts down his newspaper and takes notice.

I always make it a point to enter Aloha’s apartment with a wry comment at hand. When your aged, self-deprecating mom answers the door with one shoe on and one foot bare, the comic possibilities announce themselves and one would be a fool not to pounce. She happily jumps aboard, glancing down and guffawing, then breaking into helpless wheezing as I enter a soliloquy on the dignities of old age. If she could be summed up with a gesture it would be a bemused shrug. This endears her to some of her neighbors at the retirement village (fellow travelers through a wild and world-renewing fire), and others it bewilders and frightens.

There are moments I’ve thought my mother was going to laugh herself to death, times she couldn’t catch her breath as we both leaned into each other in helpless hilarity. When your physical machinery is 90 years old, raucous laughter is necessarily a more fragile operation. I expressed this concern once. We’d really got each other going, she was crying with laughter. Finally, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch her breath. She raised her hand to her chest, trying to draw air. I panicked.  “Hey! Hey! HEY!! MOM!! MOM!! MOM!!”

“What,” she coughed, waving me away.

“I thought you were going to leave us there for a minute!” I put my arm across her diminished little shoulder. She wiped her eyes and sighed through a rattling chuckle.

“Wouldn’t have been so bad,” she said.