Friday, March 21, 2008

I Read the News Today . . . Oh Boy

You would think after John F. Kennedy was forced to set the record straight to all those voters who had misgivings about his Irish ancestry and religion that no other presidential candidate would ever need to make such a speech again. But apparently people forget. Last Tuesday another Irishman found his religious convictions the subject of controversy and needed to settle the matter. This time it was Barack O’Bama, whom I believe is either a Democrat or a Whig running for his party’s nomination. Now, I didn’t hear this speech, but I’ll bet old Mr. O’Bama shook his shillelagh and told ’em all once and for all he wasn’t one to take orders from any pope. Faith and begorrah! So let’s not be botherin’ with that anymore, shall we lads?


I hear oil has gone over $100 a barrel. Question: could we find a cheaper kind of barrel to ship it in? After all, who cares what the barrels look like?


New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign from office because of dealings with an escort service. Now, if we’re talking police or military, I can understand the fuss. He was just the governor of New York, not the king of France for crying out loud. Tax dollars shouldn’t be wasted like that. What? — should all our politicians be carted around in horse-drawn carriages protected by muskets and cannons? I think not. Way to go, citizens of New York!


The new governor of New York, David Paterson, is legally blind. Here’s a question: what percentage of Americans are illegally blind? The answer may come as a surprise.


FACT: Ray Charles waited until 1992 to legalize his blindness. And who talked him into it? That’s right: Stevie Wonder.


The annual list of celebrities commonly thought to be dead, but are still living, just came out. Tied for first place honors this year are: Martin Landau and Charles Nelson Reilly! Keep on breathing, boys!


ITEM: We have all heard of silent letters, such as the “b” in “climb” and the “e” in “fine,” but some researchers claim to have uncovered evidence of letters that are both silent and invisible. One clinician working with patients hooked on phonics reports to have discovered a “q” in “dropsy,” while another doctor insists the entire Phoenician alphabet is contained in the word “albatross.” Says one national spelling bee official: “Man, I wish these guys were silent and invisible.”


Recently, pollsters asked the nation’s parrots this question: if you could vote in the presidential primary, who would you vote for? The overwhelming response: BAAAAAARRRAAAACCCCK!


I am the Egg Man. Coo coo coo-choo.


MIT scientists have developed a computer simulation program to settle once and for all the age-old dispute: in a duel, who would win — Batman or Superman? Proponents of Superman boast of his super-strength and invulnerability, while Batman’s adherents counter by citing the Dark Knight’s superior intelligence and cunning, along with a complete array of sophisticated, crime-fighting gadgetry, all of his own design. They also note Batman’s total mastery of karate, kung fu and jujitsu, his stature as the world’s greatest magician, well-schooled in the art of misdirection, and his standing as a supreme hypnotist, who can instantly put anyone under his spell to become slave to his will and his will alone. Also mentioned are Batman’s five books of poetry, his seven doctorates, and the Nobel prize he won for physics in 1999.

The result: in ten straight trials, Superman had Batman by the windpipe and choked him unconscious within a fraction of a second.


That is all. Over and out.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Letter

My mother always said everyone has a story in them, even those who lead the quietest and most sheltered of lives. It is difficult to walk a hundred paces on this planet without having something happen to you. Large portions of my life have been passively lived; things have oftener acted upon me instead of the other way around. There have been many times I’ve woke up and wondered how I got here? Here I am, married with two grown kids, living in a big house I can barely pay the mortgage for and owner of several other properties besides, a child of the suburbs working and living in the big city. I can be among the shyest and most retiring of God’s creatures. How could I have formed the alliances I’ve made, done the things I’ve done, when really what pleases me most is spending a day reading a book or riding a bicycle through a system of rural towns alone with my thoughts. Deep down I feel like I’m still 19, living in my parents house, going to a junior college and working part time for a little spending money. I’m just a harmless, insignificant guy, of no real interest to anybody. Nothing should ever happen to me.

Of course, loads of things have happened to me, just as they happen to everyone else. Even the most cloistered monk can’t avoid having things happen to him. We are irresistibly drawn into adventures, troubles, heart-breaking estrangements and unlooked-for good fortune; in fact, short of locking ourselves in a room, we cannot avoid either great happiness or woe, and must run the gamut from wine and roses to all “the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” That is an immutable condition of living; no one, however meek, can avoid it.

Alluding to my last post, my best friend growing up was Bruce Nelson (not, of course, his real name). Although we were the same age, he was wiser and, in a sense, older than me. He came from a “broken family” as they say, and that, along with a natural, keen intelligence, made him mature faster than the rest of us. Along with him we made up a foursome: there was me, Bruce, Hooch and Mel. He was the leader, and I believe Hooch and Mel each considered Bruce their best friend too. I am not sure, but I’ve always believed I was Bruce’s favorite. I think he appreciated my straightforwardness and fairness, and perhaps my intellect closer approached his than did Hooch’s and Mel’s. My natural tameness kept me from participating in some of he and Hooch’s more famous escapades (some of them involving drugs and hookers), but there was always me he could come back to to confide in and expect fairly well-considered opinions and advice in return.

Without going into the whole story of how our lives sometimes ran parallel and at other times diverged, we remained best friends until well into our thirties. I got married to a good and strong-willed woman, someone ambitious who wanted the better things and forced us to take some financial risks that scared the hell out of me at the time, but always seemed to pay off. Bruce, who I think had better raw materials than me, never seemed to be so well off. At one point he joined the air force, was stationed in Seoul, Korea, married a girl there, and came back home when his enlistment was over with few prospects. When he and his wife came over to visit at our house, his wife made it very plain to Bruce that my and the missus’s situation was what she wanted. She even once openly asked him why he couldn’t be more like me. To my mind, it was like preferring a plough horse to a thoroughbred, and I reminded her that her husband was capable of great things and that I’ve always admired him.

In those days I worked two jobs: weekdays I was a graphic designer and on weekends I painted for Bruce’s brother, Don. Bruce didn’t particularly like working for his brother but at that point he couldn’t get anything else, so he reluctantly joined the crew, which put me in closer contact with him. Around that time, he suddenly got “moral.” For some odd reason, he began taking exception to some of things I was doing, like working under the table on weekends and thus depriving the US government of its tax revenue; he also disapproved of the missus and I hiring a Guatemalan nanny for our kids, making us guilty of not raising them ourselves and taking advantage of someone’s cultural status to get services at a cut rate. His contention was plain: the missus and I were illicitly enjoying the good life. A house, a new car, two other properties: we didn’t deserve them. And all the while he was treading the straight and narrow and just barely scraping by.

My wife has a theory that goes like this: for every one person who becomes a Have, there are ten Have Nots who try to pull him back down. That might be a bit pessimistic or cynical, but there may be some truth to it.

At that time there was a Boston state representative (whom we’ll call Silvertongue) who made the news when it was reported that he and an aide were the principal beneficiaries of a homeless woman’s will. This bag lady, it turned out, had a personal fortune of well over $100,000, and, sometime after Silvertongue and his aide befriended her and did her a good turn, this woman who dressed in rags and slept on doorsteps expressed a desire to will her money to the both of them, which supposedly came as a great surprise. A lawyer was speedily found, the will drawn up, and shortly afterwards the bag lady was struck and killed by a car.

Silvertongue invested the money in a vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Eventually a newspaper learned of it, and soon after that this state rep, considered a rising star and destined someday to become mayor of Boston, found himself hopelessly embroiled in a scandal. At the very least there was conflict of interest, everyone said, but most of his political enemies felt some jail time was called for. The local talk shows lashed at him mercilessly. Howie Carr, the syndicated talk show host, dubbed him “Money Fitz,” a play on Rose Kennedy’s father’s nickname “Honey Fitz,” the former mayor of Boston. Nothing ever came of it as it turned out, no laws were apparently broken, and he even won the next election; but his political ambitions were permanently damaged.

Now State Representative Silvertongue represented Mission Hill, a predominantly hispanic section of Boston, and he was the darling of all the latinos. They loved him. My wife is from Puerto Rico and she worked on a couple of his campaigns; a friend of hers was actually employed by Silvertongue. She dragged me to all his rallies and dinners and I had to admit he was a personable guy when you met him, and thought he was only guilty of doing something that looked bad. There were many people who believed in him. One dinner in particular featured an endless line of loyal constituents who stepped up to a podium and defended Silvertongue by giving glowing testimonials to his integrity and good works.

Silvertongue’s story fascinated Bruce, and he seized on what he saw as a link between the disgraced Boston politician and us. Sometime before the scandal broke, the missus had lost her job as a guidance counselor at a junior college and found another unrelated and better paying job through Silvertongue’s influence. That smacked of cronyism, thought Bruce, and he one time asked me some hard questions about the missus’s qualifications, clearly insinuating that, through no other means other than dirty political patronage, the job my wife had won was unfairly wrested away from a more deserving candidate.

In some ways I’m easygoing and I shrugged his questions off. I even laughed at the federal case he was making of it. I told him he could think what he wanted and I didn’t care what his opinion of Silvertongue was. The missus was qualified and that’s that; what’s more, it’s always who you know that gets the job. That’s the way it’s always been.

One day the friend who worked for Silvertongue brought us a copy of a letter someone had mailed to him. The writer informed Silvertongue that a similar epistle had been mailed to The Boston Globe’s editorial department. This person claimed that he or she knew firsthand that my wife had gotten a job she was thoroughly unqualified for through him; and, what was more, she was actually fired from her last job due to incompetence. This manipulating of the system once again spoke volumes of Silvertongue’s complete lack of ethics. It went on and on in this vein. The missus and I were outraged.

The Globe never did anything with the letter, and we quickly decided there were two or three prime suspects as to who could have written the letter, all of them women. The missus, who has always been quick to see the dark side of humanity and never failed to tutor me on how base and evil people really are, took pains to refine my education by using this as a cautionary tale. The writer mentioned he or she was invited to a “Meet Silvertongue” party we hosted, and that clue narrowed the field down. My wife spent hours trying to figure out who the guilty party was. One time she even called a psychic hotline, and the person she spoke to informed her that her enemy was male, lived somewhere on the west coast, owned a dog, and would never bother her again. She told him he was wrong, that it had to be a woman. The psychic insisted he was right.

Of course you know where this is leading and I won’t pretend to make a mystery of it. A couple of years later, on New Year’s Day of 1995 in fact, I pulled out the copy of the letter while cleaning a desk drawer. The author, who didn’t sign it and obviously desired anonymity, made the mistake of writing it by hand. The instant I looked at it, I recognized Bruce’s handwriting. How I missed it before I can’t tell you, because I was even once asked if it looked familiar. But there was no question, Bruce wrote it. I even dug out an old letter he sent to me from Korea and compared the two. They matched perfectly.

I had his address in South Carolina (he, his wife and his dog first moved to California, and then job prospects took him to South Carolina) and mailed him a copy of his letter along with one of my own. Anger gave me eloquence and the words perfectly expressed my shock and hurt at his betrayal. Several days later I received a call from him during which he denied the whole thing. I told him he was full of shit and the conversation didn’t progress much further from there.

I have seen Bruce twice since then, first at a high school reunion in 1999, and just recently three weeks ago at his sister-in-law’s funeral. Both times he apologized and labeled the time when he wrote the letter as a “dark” period of his life. When last we spoke, he characterized what he did as the single act in life of which he was the most ashamed.

I am not angry with him, I have long since forgiven him, but I can never trust him. In a way, I wish I had never unearthed that letter and recognized it for what it was. I still look back fondly on the old days and have never regretted our friendship. It’s just a shame really. Too bad it had to happen.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Still Alive

I think I grew up with “family envy”; if that term doesn’t appear in any psychology text, then let’s say I invented it. The Nelsons (not their real name) lived several blocks from me and had nine children, an older set and a younger set. Growing up, I was familiar with the younger set. My best friend, Bruce, was the youngest child of the brood, and before him came Gary, who was two years older, then Cathy, another two years, and finally Eric, who was the oldest of the younger set and reminded everyone of Elvis Presley. I saw Bruce quite often, bumped into Cathy and Gary regularly, and seldom saw Eric.

I think I picked a rather strange family to become attached to because they were what we now call dysfunctional. Both parents had profound mental issues. The mother suffered from depression and was once lobotomized; the father was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and left the family when Bruce was very young. When Bruce and I were high school age, it was the older set of children who acted as unofficial guardians to the younger set. Their mother worked for a while at a department store warehouse until she became unfit for the job, and after that money became very tight. In a sense, Bruce had to raise himself. As a teenager he had grown-up cares and worries I never experienced.

I think what attracted me to them was the Nelson style, and nothing would have pleased me better than to be a Nelson boy myself, to be just like them. They all had the Nelson look, the Nelson way of speaking, the Nelson wit, and Nelson mannerisms. Despite their solidly humble, lower middle class roots, all of them were extremely well-informed and bright, but unaffectedly bright. Their speech was thoroughly blue collar, peppered with colloquialisms and profanity, untainted by the influence of any thesaurus, yet they expressed themselves as well as any logician or poet. Their sense of humor and comedic timing was flawless, their sarcasm first rate. No one could ever win a battle of wits against them and none of us wanted to try. Bruce in particular was one of those rare types who could take either side of an argument at different times and come out ahead in each instance without seeming to contradict himself.

As I don’t want this post to get too long, I will just briefly say that Bruce and I had a falling out nearly 13 years ago and rarely see each other. It’s a rather involved story and now is not the time for it. In fact, I saw him for the first time in nine years just two weeks ago, and that event, the reason why Bruce and I saw each other, is really the subject of this post.

Gary Nelson, who was perhaps the best-natured of the Nelsons, led a very interesting life. He was a hell raiser in his youth, got married early, often drank too much and oftener still gave his wife fits, but he always had a good heart and a genuine fondness for many of the people he met and got to know. I would say he was the funniest and most engaging of the Nelsons. People were naturally attracted to him and wanted to be his friend. It came as a great shock to everyone who knew him when sometime in his late twenties Gary had what is known as a personal experience with Jesus Christ, and, not long after that, became a Baptist minister. Everyone thought it was just a phase, one of Gary’s “addictions,” and he’d move on to something else. But he remained a preacher for a very long time and, if I have the story straight, would still be one today if it weren’t for the waywardness of some of his kids, which his congregation felt was too unseemly in a minister. He was forced to resign because of it, but still kept to the church.

You can think what you want about religious conversions, but I believe many of them are of great benefit the person who has undergone the spiritual awakening. Call it clarity of sight or complete self-deception, either way the result appears to be an enhanced stability and increased sense of purpose in one’s life. Gary up until that time had been fairly aimless, but from all accounts he fully embraced his faith and became an extremely charismatic preacher; he put everything into it. I say from all accounts, because, up until two weeks ago, I had never heard him preach. But having heard him finally, it was merely a confirmation of what I already knew was true.

The reason why I saw Gary preach and met Bruce again after nine years was because Gary’s wife, Betsy, died. She had cancer and had known for 17 months that time was running out. I only knew Betsy when she was young. She was extremely pretty back then and very nice, and always had the “Betsy smile,” as Gary described it. It was she who became “born again” first, and it was she who always kept Gary on the straight and narrow. Without her, I think he would have been lost. I know that’s always the thing you’re supposed to say about husbands, but in Gary’s case it was true. They had their share of difficulties early on, but Betsy stuck with Gary and in the end they were married for 32 years.

One of the older Nelsons, Don, a very good friend of mine these days, called to let me know Betsy had died and when the funeral was going to be. I hadn’t seen Gary for maybe 20 years, Betsy for even longer, and thought such a stretch of years would excuse me from going. It would have meant taking time off from work besides. But then I realized I would have to be a rare sort of asshole to not go. Gary was my friend, his own brother called and told me about it, work wasn’t particularly busy, how could I not go? So I went.

I arrived late that Friday morning to a smallish white church whose parking lot and the drive leading up to it was jammed with cars, threatening to spill out onto the street. A parking lot attendant managed to find a spot for me which I was just barely able to maneuver my minivan into. Entering the church, I was conducted to an overflow section that looked out onto the nave through a large opening in a wall gained through means of sliding panels. I found a seat at the very back row of a set of folding chairs. The woman next to me delicately dabbed her eyes with a napkin and some sobs were audible here or there; up at the pulpit, one of Gary and Betsy’s daughters was reading a statement she had written about her mother. As she read, she fought hard to keep her voice steady, but often the air supply to her larynx seemed to squeeze off and her voice would become thin and trail away. She had long, blonde hair and, as I saw her only in profile, I couldn’t see anything of her face.

When she had finished, a man strode up whom I instantly recognized as Gary. He had a bible with him which he opened to a section and laid on the lectern. He began to speak and you could tell right away his speech wasn’t from a prepared text. Several sentences into to it, I realized it wasn’t Gary at all, but his son, Gary Junior. Gary Junior was the main reason, from what I heard, why his father had lost his job as minister. He was the black sheep. In fact, Gary Junior had been in the newspaper just a few weeks before for stealing money out of his aunt’s checking account to purchase drugs. His aunt, Gary’s sister (one of the older set), had turned him in for his own good. And here he was up there talking about his mother, he whose actions were certainly of no comfort to Betsy during her remaining weeks of life.

I had never met Gary Junior before, but in that setting I couldn’t help thinking of the parable of the prodigal son. If I knew about him, certainly almost everyone there knew about him, too. Was there forgiveness for him, like there was for the prodigal son?

The oldest daughter spoke after him, and then Gary himself got up to speak. He too had a bible and positioned it just so on the stand. He took a moment to step back and survey the congregation. Then he said, “Good looking family, huh?” A small murmur of assent went through the audience. “Well,” he continued, “they didn’t get it from the old man, I can tell you that!” That drew a big laugh, and all the tension drained away.

The truth was, Gary’s appearance had dramatically changed over the past 20 years. His hair had gone completely white and his face was lined and a little shrunken the way some vegetables collapse in a bit when they go bad. When Gary was younger, he was handsome and athletic. I have no doubt he’s still vital and strong, but he really looked older than his years. His voice had changed too, deeper and more mature than I remember. I now think it’s funny I mistook his son for him, for the contrast between the recollection I have of Gary and how he looks today was that striking.

He talked about Betsy, told the story of how they met, made references to some passages in the bible, and then said something which will forever live in my memory. He said, “I already know I will never get married again because I’m still married.” He stepped back to give that sentence a little time to sink in and then gestured upwards to the great, vaulted ceiling of the church. “I’m still married because she’s still alive!” his amplified voice proclaimed, ringing all around. And for that moment I really believed it was true. I had just read a novel where, at one point, the main character viewed the body of his son in a morgue and noticed how the corpse was no longer his son at all, that it was a merely vacant and lifeless shell, and it occurred to him that “our bodies are the least of us.” If we can accept for a moment that there is an afterlife, if you can buy the Christian concept of heaven, then it is true, you live on, and our corporeal selves have only been discarded as a snake sloughs off its skin. At that moment, in that church, having placed myself amidst all those believers who responded by saying “yes!” and “praise God!”, it became a fact, as credible and verifiable as mitosis or spectrum analysis. The atmosphere made it that way. It really felt like Betsy was alive and with us.

At the reception, I went up to Gary and told him he had said some astonishing things. “Astonishing things?” he repeated. Then he recognized me (yours truly hasn’t changed much over the years) and gave me a massive bear hug that I had to either return with the same force or be crushed. The collar of his shirt was stained by tears; not his, I could tell, but others. We didn’t have time to talk more, but that hug really said it all.

Then I ran into Bruce, whom I at first didn’t recognize. He looked altered, but I think handsomer, as if a sculptor had refined him. There were a few other old pals I hadn’t seen for many years who appeared for the most part shorter, grayer, and with less hair. The wife of one of my buddies actually looked better and younger than ever. It wound up being a reunion that sort of put me in a state of semi-shock. Although we all hadn’t seen each others for years, it felt comfortable, and if it weren’t for the demands of work, I think I could have hung out there all afternoon.

Bruce walked me back to my car and apologized for what he had done 13 years ago (that story I’m not ready to go into). Nine years ago, at a class reunion, he had said the same thing, and I told him then as I did now that I wasn’t mad, just disappointed our friendship had been spoiled. We shook hands and I mentioned our paths would probably cross again at some point, and that’s how we parted.

That event stays with me after two weeks. The concept that someone who died can still be alive, although not new, has really struck root and given me pause. Can death be a “graduation”? I think perhaps it could.