Tuesday, December 26, 2017


You know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? I never read the book, but I liked the 1941 movie version with Spencer Tracy very much, although it frightened me.  For years, though, the story seemed remote to me.  Until one day I realized that it's a story about alcohol.  A man, a perfectly respectable man, a doctor, drinks a serum he's invented and turns into a monster version of himself.  He has no scruples or conscience.  His basest instincts emerge.  His face contorts, becomes twisted, enraged.  He rapes.  He murders.

That face and figure of Dr. Hyde look nothing like the learned Dr. Jekyll.  But they're the same man.

The drink wears off, and he becomes the respectable London gentleman Dr. Jekyll again.

This is exactly what happens to some people when they drink.  They become a completely different person, an ugly twisted version of themselves, who cuts, slashes, wounds and abuses those around them.  Or becomes embarrassingly maudlin.  Eventually they pass out, sleep it off, and become themselvesDr. Jekyllagain.  If they remember what they did when they were drunk, they usually apologize, sometimes pathetically.  They're contrite.  But a lot of times, they don't remember.  And they don't stop drinking.

The damage, though.  The damage.

If you're a kid, and you see your father or mother turn into a person you don't know, who acts differently, who spits and snarls and accuses and rages and belittles, your world has no stability, there is suddenly nothing you can rely on.  Where did my mother go?  Where did my father go?

We all have our relationship with drink and drinking. 

I have, as I'm sure you have, encountered nasty drunksmostly men in my experiencewho, with a lot of alcohol in their veins, unleash stabbing words, knowing exactly what your soft spot is, and going for it, like a hyena, ripping it open.  One former friend for years would get drunk and go for the soft spot so effectively it left you reeling or weeping or limp.  Nothing was sacred to him and his clever, hostile tongue.  Even my daughter.

I drink.  I've quit for a year or two from time to time, but I always pick up the glass of wine again sooner or later.  Mostly the things I do when I drink too much are stupid or rash.  I don't think I'm cruel. But the idea that with alcohol I unleash this different person with the same name is highly unsettling.

The next day, as my head clears, thinking of what I did or said the previous evening (if I can remember), I wonder: who am I, reallyDr. Jekyll?  Or Mr. Hyde?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Very bad Santa

This is the time of year I dread. It's not the fault of Christmas. It's that, you know, divorced, without the kid, and so on.

There are many more like me everywhere in various un-merry circumstances, depressed. So, I propose a few ways in which to alleviate the Xmas doldrums.

First, I suggest we dress up as Santa, approach strangers on the street, and whisper in their ear, "I'm not wearing any underwear."

I suggest that we all go shoplifting and give each other the things we steal.

I suggest we try to get 100,000 signatures to make playing "Little Drummer Boy" in any public place a felony.

I propose we leave Santa cookies laced with Viagra and cut Mrs. Santa's milk with Ambien.

I suggest we buy copies of "beloved" Christmas movies: Miracle on 34th Street, Love, Actually, A Christmas Carol and, of course, It's a Wonderful Life. Then we go outside, pour gasoline on them, and set them on fire.

I suggest we call up houses, ask for the kid, tell him he's Jewish, and hang up.

I propose we send "ten Lords a-leaping" to anyone in your community who is homophobic.

I propose that wherever it snows, we go to people's houses in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and urinate, letter by letter, "BAH, HUMBUG," in the snow. Women can try this, if they like.

I suggest we complain to authorities that when Santa says, "Ho, ho, ho," he's actually asking for a prostitute.

I propose that we all get together on Christmas evening and watch the clock go past midnight and sigh collectively in relief.

Well? What do you say? Anybody want to join me?


Monday, December 18, 2017


Finishing Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir of becoming a chef, Blood, Bones & Butter, I am thinking about passion.

This is how Hamilton writes, and this is how she lives, passionately.  She is a chef.  She is a mother.  She is a woman.  Foremost, though, she is fiercely alive. Her gospel is hard work. (At one point she calls it "my Protestant dishwasher's mentality.)  This book is crammed with exhaustion and with determination.  She is never, no matter the situation, afraid of getting her hands dirty. (For a definitive example of this, read about her cleaning up the space that was going to be her now-famous New York restaurant, Prune.)

She's certainly not perfect. She can be bitter.  It's clear she can be difficult at times, and she doesn't concede a lot when blame is to be dispensed. 

But she's resolute. Giving up is against her nature.  And she's a whirlwind.  The gusto, the energy she possesses, is scary.

This book is a pleasure to read, like one of the joyful exuberant meals Hamilton has in Italy with her husband's big family.  She writes with such verve, she can even make an early-morning train ride to speak to a conference with just four hours sleep, missing her young children, seem, somehow, exhilarating.  She's also one of the most informal narrators you'll ever encounter.  There is zero pretension from her.  She walks around casually, handing you a glass of wine, a joint, a bowl of something delicious.

Gabrielle Hamilton

In the end, I come away from reading this highly engrossing bookaddictive, reallythinking that this is a person guided by passion, for better or worse, like a migrating bird's sense of direction.  It takes courage to live that way.  Hamilton is courageous.

I remember visiting a friend a year or so ago, an older woman in her eighties, who married young, an Irish Catholic from outside Chicago, steeped in the restraints of her religion and culture.  She had five children and spent most of her life raising them with a somewhat difficult husband.  We were sitting in her living room one afternoon, drinking wine, when she started tearing up.  I asked her what was the matter.  I don't remember what it was we were talking about, but I'm fairly sure it was just some kind of banter.

"So many people," she said, "have lived more interesting lives than I have."

How could I console her?  I said a few words, did the best I could.  But there was truth there.  I know, because I saw it in me.

Now, at seventy-two, with no idea how many more years are allotted to me, I wonder if I'll have the courage to live those years the only way they should be livedwith passion.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

How the Hardy Boys saved my life

The year, 1955.  I was ten. The Hardy Boys books were about.  They’re a series, the first one published in 1927, about two brothers who become amateur detectives.  The brothers’ father was “the internationally renowned detective Fenton Hardy.”  The boys, Frank and Joe, were about seventeen.  Each book was a mystery, and each was numbered.  Number One was The Tower Treasure.  (I see that The Tower Treasure is ranked 45,112 on the amazon.com sales list, and is number 55 on Publisher’s Weekly’s all-time bestselling children’s book list, so I guess people are still reading the books.)  They were written by Franklin W. Dixon.  I thought he was a real person at the time, and was fairly worshipful of him.  I found out later that there wasn’t a Franklin W. Dixon.  It was a pen name for Charles Leslie McFarlane, a Canadian journalist.  I was crushed when I found that out.  It was almost as disillusioning as the unmasking of Santa Claus.  
So, the scenario is: somewhat unhappy boy (yrs truly) goes to library for the first time on his own.  I don’t remember why.  Perhaps I had to pick out a book for school.  Perhaps a friend, not knowing about how hard it was for me to read, urged me to read the Hardy Boys.  But one day I found myself in the stacks of the local library searching for Hardy Boys books.

I was not a good reader as a kid.  Each word on the page came into my tiny head with great labor, as if I were driving in fence posts with my mind.  I read word by word—letter by letter almost.  If I say it was painful for me to read, I mean that.  It hurt for me to read.  My brain squeezed.  My eyes clinched.  I often had to go back to read a sentence again and again.  So many words eluded me.  I couldn’t understand why it was so hard, this reading thing.  I was too ashamed to admit what was happening.  I just struggled.  I still do, after a fashion.

I picked the second book in the series, The House on the Cliff.  I opened the book in the stacks and began to read.  It was hard for me, as usual.  They used such difficult words!  (Yes, I’m talking about the Hardy Boys. I was not an able reader.)  How could anything that took this much effort, that was this humiliating, be fun?  Nevertheless, I started to read.  I remember the fat book in my hands.  These are not the Technicolor Hardy Boys editions of today.  The old books were Victor Hugo-esque in size, with thickish pages.  They had fat covers, the kind where the corners curve inward and the covers have faintly scored surfaces, nearly serrated.  I can still remember the smell of the pages.  They smelled of wood pulp.  You turned a page, and you felt you had taken a kind of step as it settled softly against the bank of pages that preceded it.  

Here is the beginning of Chapter One:
“‘So you boys want to help me on another case?’ Fenton Hardy, internationally known detective, smiled at his teen-age sons.

“‘Dad, you said you are working on a very mysterious case right now,’ Frank spoke up.  ‘Isn’t there some angle of it Joe and I might tackle?’
“Mr. Hardy looked out the window of his second-floor study as if searching for the answer somewhere in the town of Bayport, where the Hardys lived.  Finally he turned back and gazed steadfastly at his sons.

“‘All right.  How would you like to look for some smugglers?’
“Joe Hardy’s eyes opened wide.  ‘You mean it, Dad?’”

That’s not difficult writing, you may say.
It was difficult for me.  I’m sure expressions like “internationally known” and “gazed steadfastly” were beyond me.  But I kept at it, inch by inch.  Soon, the Hardy Boys’ chubby pal, Chet, was introduced, a comic foil.  The adventure began to unravel, and somehow I followed it. 

Then occurred that moment that all readers know.  It is particularly strong when you are young and beginning your reading career, but it never leaves you.  I went into the book.  Suddenly, I was in it.  When I did enter, I found an entire world.  It was a world where “they” were glad to see me.  I belonged.
I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of people who have experienced the salvation of reading.  Who have found refuge between covers of a book.  I was too young to understand fully what was happening.  I do remember that there came a point when the labor of reading seemed to be less important than staying in that world.  I wasn’t just watching.  I was participating.   Right then and there my life was saved.  I mean exactly that.  

What was in that world I entered into?  It was a world that was certainly different than the one I was living in day by day, and far better in many ways.   It had a good and kind father, for one thing.  It was a world chock full of adventure.  These boys could do things that I would certainly never be allowed to do, whatever kind of father I had.  They faced danger. They solved problems.  They helped solve crimes.  What I didn’t know then and only realized later was that I was helping them do that.  Without me, this world didn’t exist.  It was simply ink.  
That world was waiting for me whenever I returned.  It never changed.  If I had been humiliated or rejected or ignored in my own world—all of which happened with some frequency—I could return to the world of Frank and Joe Hardy and their excellent adventures.  No matter how hard it was for me to read, it was worth it to have this refuge.  I was never denied access.  No one ever said to me: you can’t come in, you’re too young, you’re too stupid, you’re too anything.

That day then and there, I was saved.  Saved from most anything life threw at me.  Saved, in the sense of religion.  Saved by the Hardy Boys.  And all the other splendid books that followed.  

Saturday, December 9, 2017


What did Joseph Conrad say?  "There is a taint of death in lies."

On the other hand, Graham Greene wrote, "The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human beingit's a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."

We all lie.  Most of the time it's for expediency.  You just don't want to do something, go somewhere, see someone.  Or you don't want to express your true opinion of something--the food you've just eaten at a friend's house, the gift you've been given.

There are bigger and more significant lies, of course.  Some quite malicious and harmful, some inexcusable.  Some that cause permanent damage, betray great trusts, lead you to do things harmful to yourself.  Some lies must be called out.  Some lies stink.  And the more powerful you are, the easier it is to get away with your lies.  We all know that.  And sometimes it is hard to tell the truth, but necessary.  I don't always live up to that.  In fact, most often I don't.

I'm with Graham Greene, though.  The idea that you should never lie, that you're a horrible person if you do, tells me that the speaker does not understand the human heart or human relations, as Greene put it.

Tennessee Williams understood this very well.  A brave and uncompromising artist, he knew that often morality depends on circumstance.  That it can be nuanced.  In A Streetcar Named Desire, Mitch confronts Blanche when he learns about her sordid past in Mississippi:

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.

How can you not lie in your heart and lie with your words?  You can.  If he believed Blanche, would Mitch have lived happily ever after with her?  I don't know. Tennessee never makes these things easy for you.  He never lies artistically.

People can use the truth to hurt others.  They can hide behind the maxim, "Telling the truth is always better than lying."  Then they take that "truth" and stab the person in the gut with it, humiliate them, make them feel small.  Add alcohol, and you have emotional razor blades across the face.

I do know that when I lie, I always feel a wave of guilt.  If I think my lying will save a person some shame, some humiliation, some pain, I get over that guilt almost immediately.  But if the reason for the lie is more to prevent me from facing something I don't want to face, then that wave doesn't go away.

The problem, for me, can be admitting the difference.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The thief of dreams

With every new Donald Trump announcement or proclamation that draws on the worst in us, I think about my daughter.

She’s young, only twenty-four. Her life is really just beginning. She’s at the age where you make dreams about the future, think about the life you will lead, let your hopes and aspirations wander as they will. Anything is possible. All doors are open. This is a moment we cherish for our children and try our best to prepare them for. We had such moments when we were young. They only appear once, and they are glorious, full of exciting uncertainty and potential. In those moments, we can be anything, do anything. Why not?

I had that freedom to dream, that open chance at optimism, when I was young.  Now that I’m not young, I know well how precious that dreaming was.
But every morning I get up to some new haughty, unsettling declaration by Donald Trump that I know must infringe on those freshly minted dreams my daughter and others like her are making. It’s hard to keep up. A month or two ago he was threatening to unleash Armageddon. How can you dream beautiful dreams when you’re worried you might be blown up, or at the very least witness the dogs of war unleashed on North Korea with no certain outcome? Then Trump let loose the dogs of racism as well. White supremacists and neo-Nazis, and whatever else they call themselves, feel like they can come out of the woodwork. And they have, with disastrous, chaotic results. He’s empowered them to show their true colors, and there was Trump’s old supporter, David Duke, in Charlottesville to cheer them on. A woman was killed. Trump embraced this. Now it's about Jerusalem.  We're on pins and needles, worried violence will unfold. What will he do next?  Every day is built on uncertainty.

It’s hard to build dreams, those most delicate of bridges, in such an atmosphere of crude turmoil, of hatred and danger. I am so angry at Trump. I am angry at him for many reasons, but mainly I am angry at him for poisoning the emotional landscape around him, like what the damaged nuclear reactors Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima did to the earth. Things don’t grow in those sterile places.

How dare he. How dare he pollute the ability for young people to plan their futures in serenity and peace and with hope. I’m calling him out for the thief he is.


Many summers ago, I was in Denver visiting my sister and her family. One morning, someone suggested a game of golf.

I don't play golf. But I figured, nice day, get some exercise, move the legs, see some scenery, try my hand at it. What the hell. So, off we went to a course whose name I no longer remember. My brother and brother-in-law were playing, and my nephew was there, too. Playing at a high altitude helped, since even a bad shot went further in the thin air. The course was fairly narrow, and some new houses were being built on either side of the fairways. Around the third hole, I realized I was actually having fun.

Not that I knew what the hell I was doing. I just reared back and let her rip. Sometimes the ball went somewhere, and sometimes it trickled off the tee disconsolately. I took a lot of mulligans. No one cared. It just a good time on the links.

Somewhere along the seventh or eighth hole, I teed up. It was a par five. I would have been happy with a ten. I wielded some kind of driver, a number five, if memory serves. I liked that little head. I did some obviously fake warm-up stuff, stepped up, reared back and swung. Thwack. Miraculously, the ball took off from the head of the club and sailed high and long away. That felt good!

And then mid flight or so, the ball began to curve right. What is that called? A slice? Or a hook? Well, it curved right and headed directly for the houses that flanked the side of the course. "Uh-oh," my brother-in-law said. "Get ready to pay for a window," my brother said. I didn't hear any glass breaking, but of course we were pretty far away. "Nice shot," my nephew said. "Even better of it had gone straight."

We walked down the fairway until we came to where I thought the ball had gone. There was a house, and then, next to it, a house in the middle of being built. I walked to that house, the walls of which hadn't been raised yet, and encountered a man, obviously a carpenter, lying face up on the wood floor, arms outstretched, a hammer in his open hand. One of his fellow carpenters was kneeling next to him and saying, "Dude! Dude! Can you hear me! Dude, are you ok?"

Next to the prostrate man was a golf ball. Indeed, as it turned out, my golf ball.

Restraining my first urge to flee, I walked toward the poor guy who was moaning, but not dead. First stroke (no pun) of good luck.

"Dude! Speak to me!" his friend said. And, thank the gods, the guy on his back began opening his eyes.

"Whappened?" he asked dreamily.

"You got beaned by a golf ball, Dude. I think it was this dude who did it." He looked at me.

"Hi there!" I said.

"Oh, my head hurts," the injured party said, rubbing the back of his head.

But the fact is, he came around. He even sat up. I apologized like an insane man, offering to take him to the hospital and pay whatever bill there might be to be paid, hoping an operation wouldn't be necessary.

"No, man," he said, continuing to rub the back of his head. "That's ok."

"What are the odds of that happening?!?" I said cheerily, picking up my ball.

And guess what--it was ok. I got his number and called him the next day, and he couldn't have been sweeter. I apologized again, and he really was all right about it.

But for years afterward, I would hear that refrain at family gatherings,

"Dude! Dude! Can you hear me? Dude!"


Monday, December 4, 2017

Nine compelling new writers

It's a relief when I can write a post that isn't all about me.

Because I get tired of me.

So, today, I'm pleased to turn this over to nine compelling new writers.  They're all Master of Fine Arts candidates at the University of New Orleans.  In late October, they took a day-long kayak ride down a bayou in southeast Louisiana.

Then they wrote about what they saw, and thought, that day.  Take some time out of your busy day to go with them on what turned out to be pretty hard going at times.  But they turned that day into some terrific writing. 

Just click here to go along with them.

You'll be glad you did.