« Posts under Published Essays


Gemini Magazine, May 2012

Senior year in college. The final hurrah before the hard slog of adulthood. The last taste of campus celebrity. The fleeting perception of being a big shot. The hard reality of taking a cheap shot.

“Get in shape, Don,” Rutgers hard-nosed offensive coordinator grumbled disapprovingly, his steel-capped cleats clanking the macadam walkway leading into the locker room, me sitting on a bench outside the door wheezing my ass off and threatening to barf…again.

We had just finished the first practice session of Rutgers football summer camp—two weeks of two-a-days in New Jersey’s late August hell.  The days ahead promised to give new meaning to the description I had once heard of “a football practice”…a period of intense boredom punctuated by moments of acute fear. The author of those words was presumably equating fear to the physical aspects of a game that demands the repetitive collisions of large bodies intent on doing damage to one another. Honestly, that part never bothered me as much as the psychological challenges of becoming a “starter,” and remaining one. That said, and what with my having been Rutgers starting fullback for the past two seasons, one would think I would have arrived at my final summer camp in the best shape of my life. Clearly, I did not. And so began my last year in football…one year too late, as it turned out!
»Read More

“The Three Charlies”

Folly Magazine.

On a bitterly cold New England Monday in January 1978, I entered my third psychiatric hospital in less than six months. I would spend the next year of my life there, almost half of that time as a resident of Thompson 2, the Institute of Living’s most closely monitored, all-male, 24/7 locked-down unit.

I had been in such places before—New York’s Bellevue Hospital and the Carrier Clinic near Princeton in New Jersey—but my arrival to those “facilities” had been cushioned with substantial medication and no expectations. I arrived at Thompson 2 that January afternoon, expecting to step straight off a pampered country inns weekend and onto the idyllic rehab brochure that my Park Avenue shrink had shared with me in New York.

“Do it, Don.” He had implored. “A few months at the Institute is nothing compared to what almost happened last summer. You were lucky to survive a brush with death. Look at this as a fresh chance at life.”

His logic was sound, and persuasive, especially given that I knew I was sliding back into a very dark mental hole—a hole that had all too recently hurled me to suicidal depths and introduced me to handcuffs, straitjackets, padded rooms and electroconvulsive shock therapy.
»Read More


ken againken*again, Vol. 12 No. 4

Lover Boy was my uncle. Tanta Anne was his aunt. Baltimore’s Pigtown was their home.

My uncle, the second oldest of five brothers and the one most likely to become a juvenile delinquent, grew up regularly charming his way out of the kind of trouble that usually landed his four brothers in fistfights, mostly to cover for Lover Boy’s small frame and big mouth.

His aunt Anne was a round, sedentary woman of the Wernsdorfer clan that had arrived in Baltimore from Germany in the late nineteenth century. Tanta expended no more energy than was absolutely required to get from one end of the day to the other, preferring to sit in her well-worn chair behind the painted screen of her front window watching the world go by and waiting for someone to throw a party.
»Read More


The LegendayThe Legendary, Issue 30

“Sir, I think you’re telling me a porky.” The dour UK Customs agent said this with the same accusatory tone that Sister Mary Celeste had so witheringly adopted whenever it was apparent that I had not completed my fourth grade homework assignments.

“Excuse me?” I responded, feigning confusion over his meaning.

“A story, sir. Something that is not exactly the truth.”

It was late on the Friday night ending my third week of London residence. I had just flown into Heathrow Airport from Rome, having spent the past two days visiting with an important business partner in Italy. Tired and still trying to get my bearings in my new role as the ad agency’s international pooh-bah, all I wanted was to get back to my hovel at “Laverne & Shirley’s” (my self-dubbed, below-ground service apartment in London’s fashionable Knightsbridge) for some rest and situational reassessment. So when the Customs man asked me if I was working in the UK, I said no. As he persisted with his questions, I persisted with the porky. It was not going well.
»Read More

“Machiavelli and Me”

Palo Alto Review, Volume XIVPalo Alto Review, Volume XIV

There’s a paper-thin separation between the summer jobs of one’s college years and the career-starters in which we find ourselves immediately after college. One day you’re a lifeguard; the next day you’re a stockbroker. In my case, one day I was a construction site gofer and the next day I was a Manhattan ad agency rat packer.

The shift from my carefree summer strolls along life’s edge to the intense marathon that would consume the next thirty years was as abrupt as the crack of a starter’s pistol. Simple suddenly gave way to cunning. Direct was out, duplicitous in. Perception was truth. The summers of my youth were surely gone. Fortunately for this young marathoner, their memories lingered.
»Read More


The South Carolina Review, Volume 38

“House spider,” the man in the khaki uniform said nonchalantly, as my wife and I instinctively retreated. It looked like a hairy dinner plate with legs, ambling across the hard-packed dirt floor.

We had just arrived at our campsite, deep inside the rainforest of Nepal. The previous night had been spent in the relative civility of Tiger Tops, a jungle’s-edge community of “tree house condominiums” in the Royal Chitawan National Park. There we had literally stepped off our tree house deck and onto the backs of elephants to be ferried into the tropical bush in search of one-horned rhinoceros and tiger. Given that nothing in the jungle messes with a four-ton elephant, it was a rather safe adventure, but an adventure nevertheless. Now, on our final night in the wild, deep within Nepal’s dark interior, we anticipated more of the same. More elephants. More rhinos. More tigers. No one had said anything about spiders.
»Read More


The Awakenings Review, Volume 4The Awakenings Review, Volume 4

“Wilbert. Su madre.” It was like clockwork. Every Saturday. No exceptions. Even if the New England winter was chucking icicles instead of snowflakes, his mother came. Wilbert perked right up. He knew su madre meant a big hug from Mamma, the familiar sound of his native tongue, and chocolates. I’m pretty certain his enthusiasm was mostly about the chocolates. Not that I could understand their conversations, despite my ringside seat. Wilbert spoke only Spanish, when he spoke, which wasn’t much. He seemed to find his voice mostly in grunts and head nods. Even with his madre. That must have been hard on her. Then again, having a big American, too old to be her son but too young to be her husband, sitting in on her weekly visit with her baby boy must have been a bit of a drag, too. Plus, there was the ever-present aide. It was like a talk show, with Mamma in the host’s chair, Wilbert the guest of honor, me relegated to the far end of the couch, and the aide as off-camera director, watching the clock and cueing the commercial breaks. Only Mamma spoke.

Wilbert and I were patients in a psychiatric hospital. We were both under constant supervision. This meant that we were never without each other’s company and never without the company of a psychiatric aide. Privacy was nonexistent. At 31 years old, I found this difficult. Wilbert, on the other hand, was largely oblivious.
»Read More


North Atlantic Review, Number 17North Atlantic Review, Number 17

The day begins in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city. I have been in this country of nomads just 48 hours, yet my senses reel from its dramatic mix of Russia, China, and the spirit of Genghis Khan. There are no roads in Mongolia, but for the roughly half dozen potholed pretenders that crisscross this city of three-story high-rises, wooden shacks, and Ger tents. Nothing is slick. Russia’s influence is unmistakable. Yet surrounding this tiny, dull metropolis is its antithesis: lush, rolling hills dotted with pine-scented forests and crystal clear streams, all lit to cinematic perfection by the low-slung sun. Mirroring these contrasts are the people, who belie their Russian connection in deference to an indefinable melding of their Chinese neighbors’ high cheekbones and flat faces with the ruddy complexions of Eskimos.

These observations are in my mind as my wife and I are driven to Ulaanbaatar’s airfield, where we will be loaded onto a Russian-made Antonov 24 for the two-hour flight north to a place called Moron. There we are to spend the night in a Ger camp before beginning a long overland journey to Mongolia’s lake region on the edge of Siberia, subsequently backtracking south to the arid wonders of the Gobi. The promise of exotic experience looms large. We count on it. What we do not count on is the way this day will end.
»Read More


Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, Volume 6Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, Volume 6

Colorfully coated tablets turn mountainous highs and cavernous lows into gently rolling grassy knolls of I’m ok. Professional listeners smooth life’s wrinkles and put a crisp crease in our outlook. A jolt of electric current reshuffles the cerebral deck so we forget what got us down. And for those with time to spare and good insurance, the ordered and orderly-controlled world of institutional residence offers the opportunity to stroll cocooned grounds like Mrs. Robinson. Big therapy.

A smile of acceptance. A word of encouragement. A hand of support. A suspension of judgement. Little therapy.

Mental baggage can be dead weight on a weak mind. It is one thing to lift the weight and quite another to propel it forward.

*  *  *

The weight landed on me with a thud in the summer of 1977. It was the “Summer of Sam” in New York City. »Read More