Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Living in a new place for a short time and trying to understand how everything works

I've rented a small apartment in Maine for a brief stay.  It's the first time I've stayed in this place.  Everything is new.  The shower, kitchen, windows, front door, closets, bathroom.  

Every time I stay in a new place, it's the same situation.  I have to fiddle with shower handles to discern the right balance between hot and cold, something I've long established in my own place.  Several screams later, I begin to make the proper adjustments.  Finally, after perhaps a week, sometimes even longer, I determine precisely how to reach that correct balance of hot and cold water to produce the ideal shower.

The process is the same with everything.  My stove, for example, has new mysteries of oven temperature to deal with.  Is its 350 degrees the same as my stove's at home? What about the burners?  They're electric, not gas, like mine.   The cultures are entirely different between gas and electric.  This adjusting takes up almost two weeks.  In the process, I burn several dishes, and myself.

Lamps, windows, cabinets, even chairs--they all require learning curves.  Where's that switch to turn this &^%$# lamp off?

Finally, after four weeks, I think I've learned how to make everything work according to my own particular routines and predilections.

The time to leave is just around the corner.

I can't take these highly honed skills and newfound knowledge anywhere else.  They only fit here, in this apartment.  

Maybe I could loan myself out as a kind of apartment docent to anyone else who rents this place.

"Now,  you'll notice this window shade is rather temperamental.  I would  suggest an angled pull on the cord, with the slightest tug at the end...."

Like everyone else, I just want to be useful.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Telling a lie

From time to time, I meet someone who says, "I never lie." 

I don't believe them.

It's almost impossible for me to go through the day without telling a lie.  I lie in order not to hurt someone, for example.  Of course, the truth isn't necessarily called for when not asked for.  But sometimes you're asked for it, and sometimes it's better not to provide it.  If they ask you, are you going to tell your child she or he wasn't less than wonderful in the school recital?  And if you do tell them they just weren't that goodwhich is the truth, mind you!well, go live with the look on their face.  

But, hey, you can say you never lie.  Good for you. 

Someone asked playwright Tracy Letts what he says when he sees a play written by a friend that he thinks is awful and the friend asks him his opinion.

"I lie!" Letts said.  "I lie magnificently!"

I agree with what one of Graham Greene's characters has to say about this:  "The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human beingit is a symbol for mathematicians to pursue.  In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."

Of course, sometimes lying is despicable.  If the intent is to deceive, to cause harm, simply to gain an advantage, well, it's ugly.  Sometimes you have to tell the truth.  You're a coward if you don't.  I often fail here.  I lie when I shouldn't.  Not proud of that. 

I side with Tennessee Williams.  I trust his sense of morality.  In A Streetcar Named Desire, Mitch confronts Blanche with some unsavory details about her past:

Mitch:  You lied to me, Blanche.
Blanche:  Don't say I lied to you.
Mitch:  Lies, lies, inside and out, all lies.
Blanche:  Never inside, I didn't lie in my heart...

TW was the same guy who said the worst sin is deliberate cruelty.  And a lot of times a well-fabricated lie prevents me from being deliberately cruel.  In those moments, I'm content to be a liar.

A great friend of mine, who tells the truth faithfully more than anyone I've ever known, said to me recently, "I've made a vow not to lie to myself anymore."

Now that is a different story.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Farewell, Cake Cafe

It's hard to calculate a loss like this.  How do you measure warmth, conviviality, a sense of welcome, an always interesting mix of people, eclectic servers, and wonderful, heartwarming food?  How do you calibrate a sense of home?  Of a place that satisfied your belly and your soul?  That was relaxed, fun, colorful and faithfully reflected the Marigny, the New Orleans neighborhood it served so openheartedly.

Steve Himelfarb and Becky Retz, owners and partners. They earned every bit of the popularity bestowed upon the Cake Cafe.  The place was packed on the weekends, lines outside, people coming for a substantial breakfastmy favorite: the poetic homemade corned beef hash.  There was always robust coffee and a sense that they were glad you were there.

Some things need to be mentioned.  Steve's king cake, ranked high in the city. (Those reading this not from New Orleans who want to know what a king cake is, read this.)   I ordered one every year.  I ate a lot of their celebrated cupcakes, too.  But in the interest of not having to buy new pants every six months, I stopped.  Nearly.

On the weekends, Steve in back in the kitchen, you were greeted by Becky.  She had a small pad, took your name, asking if you wanted a table inside or out.  And however crowded it was, you got that table much sooner than later.  It was always so heartening to be greeted by her sunny disposition.

I don't like writing this.  I don't like the idea of not being able to go to the Cake Cafe any more.  Change your minds, Steve and Becky!  Don't leave me out in the cold, away from your embrace. Like so many places we come to love and to depend on to give us a big dose of the better things in life, the loss will hit us hard.  Has, already.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Becoming Pete Dawkins

Sometime in the early 1980s, when I was living in New York City, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In those days, I went often. It was a sunny fall day. I climbed the familiar marble steps and walked into the main entrance hall. It’s a vast space. It was, as it always is, crowded with humanity. There were uncountable scattered individuals, and there were groups. I looked about absently, trying to decide what part of the museum I would explore that day, at which point I would enter.

I noticed a group directly in front of me. There were about fifteen people in the group, all of them, I could see, wearing name tags. For some reason, and now I wonder why, I walked closer to them. I saw that the tags read, “Cranbrook School Alumni.” My old school prep school! Surprised, I looked to see if I recognized any of them. I did not.

Then I heard a male voice. “Ok, let’s go!” it said commandingly. I turned my eyes toward the voice. Instantly, I knew who it was. It was Pete Dawkins. The great Pete Dawkins, West Point graduate, football legend, all-around hero and Cranbrook School alumnus. I had studied his face so carefully so many times when I was at Cranbrook that even with the gray hair he had now, I knew it was him. That chieftain, that granite-hewn face! And, it made sense, of course, that he was leading a group of alumni of the school he had once attended.

There he stood, the ultimate alumnus, leading the chosen few. What had they done to be part of this elite group? What had they promised? A personal tour by none other than the mythical Pete Dawkins. Just for an instant, I had the urge to walk up to him. I wanted to talk to him. I had some things I wanted to know about his time at Cranbrook. Did he know he had been used? Did he know he had been a lure? He raised an arm and waved the group forward, like the soldier he was. Then Pete Dawkins turned and began walking away, the group following eagerly behind him. I watched them move through the throng toward the heart of the museum, this gray-haired hero leading them. Very soon, they began to be swallowed up in the crowd. And then they vanished completely, as if they’d never been there.

My heart was pounding.

I turned and walked out of the museum, down the stone steps, and away from the throng, so I could breathe.

[Please read the rest of the story here:]

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


I woke up today with a hangover.  Not a booze-inflicted hangover.  A crying hangover.  Yesterday afternoon, I wept uncontrollably for an hour at least. I don't remember how long it actually was.  It all gushed out, the despair I'd been closeting in my heart.  I couldn't contain it any more.  My hands to my face, I let the dam burst, and I couldn't stop it. I wept and wailed, and, like a cut vein, the pain gushed and gushed.  Like a rain-soaked cloud, it poured and poured and poured, a hurricane of pain, a typhoon of pain and distress and hopelessness.  It had been brewing for months, but I'd contained it, until something set it off, I don't know what.  Somehow, my heart had become saturated.  I was on the phone with my brother, and I had to hang up.  I could feel it coming, and I couldn't stop it, didn't want to stop it.  

And I not only wept, I wailed, throwing out desperate question after desperate question. I don't know the answers.  Why?  Why did it end up like this?

The complete vulnerability, nakedness, all of it poured out of my eyes and throat.

And afterwardyou all know thisstunned and exhausted, wrung out, nothing left, nothing.  

No answers.  But surrender.  Blessed surrender.

The release of those pent-up feelings, overcoming the instinct to keep in control, for God's sake, not to mention the sense, in my case at least, that it's unmanly to cryto break past that and let it happen. Finally. 


I've been wearing masks for years.  I have an entire metaphorical closet full of them.  For all occasions and all times.  I made them all myself, actually.

I wear them to protect myself.  Not from any virus.  But from people knowing who I really am.

These masks are so cleverly constructed it's hard to tell I'm wearing one.  At least, that's the goal.

So now when I go to the grocery store or to the pharmacy with a literal mask, surgeon-ready, I'm relieved.  I don't have to go to the elaborate stages of putting on one of my many false faces to hide behind.  This real mask does all the work for me.

The relief of not being seen.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The wader

I saw a Yellow-crowned Night Heron yesterday.  It was at City Park in New Orleans. I was walking across a little bridge into a part of the park that's especially fine for birdwatching.  I looked down, and there it was.  It was wading in the shallow water, looking for prey.

It was taking slow steps on its yellow legs through the water.  Its steps were delicate and considered, as if it were walking among broken glass, trying to locate the single unmarred spot to put its foot.  

It looked up at me.  Herons seldom look at you purposefully, like a dog might.  You can't be sure they are because in many cases they are stock still and nothing about them moves.  Even if the eye on the side of their head is pointed your way, it's not necessarily focused on you.

In this case it was.  It made me feel oddly uneasy, as if it could see something about me that I didn't want seen. I wondered if it had been corrupted to the expectation of being fed.  But I doubted it.  These birds have a dignified aloofness that seems incorruptible.

Herons are often solitary and seem quite content with that life.  I am not.  I was with someone until a few months ago.  But here I am.

What a beautiful bird, with its painted yellow streak on top and sides of its head, the rest of the head black.  

You are either thrilled by the sight of birds, and especially of some birds like this one, or you are not. You can't persuade anyone to swoon over a bird just as you can't persuade anyone to love a person.  You do, or you don't.

I wished I had loved her.  We were together for about four years.  I called it off.  She lingers with me.  She's part of my body.  I know her so well I can tell you how she would move and react and talk in most situations.  I have an accrued store of experiences we shared that will never leave me.  I hold them preciously, even if, as I believe, she does not.  She won't speak to me. 

Now, I walk on, solitary, treading delicately the path of my existence.

I hold her goodness in my heart.