« Archives in February, 2011

“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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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


I turned onto Clamshell Road in search of number 184. My aunt and uncle had lived in this place for 20 years, but this would be my first visit. Montego Bay—Ocean City, Maryland, not Jamaica—is a community of modest modular homes, nearly all of which seemed to display American flags on that particularly hot July morning.

My aunt and uncle were fairly typical of Montego Bay’s residents, having moved there to enjoy retirement and stretch their small pensions. My aunt had been a bank teller and my uncle a mailman. She’d been robbed a bunch of times and he’d had more than his fair share of unfriendly canine encounters, but otherwise their working lives were pretty routine. They had raised two daughters about my age and lived not far from us so we saw them pretty often when I was a kid. My uncle could be a little rough at the edges but my aunt was tough enough to handle him. They were perfect for each other.

Now well into their 80’s, both of them had had a seemingly endless run of medical problems. Cancer, emphysema, heart, colon, and back operations—you could pretty much name an ailment and one of them had probably had it. That was a big part of my motivation to visit. I was at the beach with my daughter and her family, staying nearby, so I figured it’d be nice to surprise Aunt Audrey and Uncle Willie while the opportunity was there. As I pulled up to the curb at number 184, I knew that I had succeeded.

“Oh gawd, Audrey, look who’s here,” I heard my uncle say through the front screen. “Hey, Meathead!” he yelled, reviving the nickname he’d bestowed on me long before Archie Bunker had popularized the moniker.

As I recall, the origin of my less-than-flattering nickname had to do with a crabbing excursion when I was a kid. It was my Dad, Uncle Willie and I. As we pulled the bait lines up to the surface alongside the boat, I consistently failed to net the crabs. After numerous such failures, my uncle labeled me a meathead, thus clarifying my status as a first-class bungler.

As we spoke about this in my uncle’s front room that morning, he suddenly started telling a story. I was disoriented at first, like when you miss the first few minutes of a TV drama and you’re not sure what’s happening. It took me a little while to catch up. When I did, we were in New Zealand, the war was winding down, and my uncle was about to go home. His ship, a destroyer that would remain on duty in the South Pacific, had dropped him and several other homeward-bound servicemen in New Zealand. From there, they would crew their way home on merchant marine vessels as space allowed.

“We had to wait a couple weeks in Auckland,” my uncle was saying, “and when it was finally our turn, boy, were we ready! We were only a few hours out when it happened. Torpedo tore through the hull like it was made out of cardboard. Next thing I knew, I was in the water.” »Read More


Every school day commute began the same way. Out the back door from the kitchen, down the iron steps into our small back yard, unlatch the chain-link gate, step into the alley, and start picking up my friends for the half-mile walk to St. Bernardine’s. First stop, the Warfields.

Bobby’d already be stepping out from under the trellis at the end of his yard, his mother standing at the kitchen door calling Freckles, the Warfields’ black-and-white cocker spaniel, to get back in the house.

Bobby’s wardrobe mirrored mine—the compulsory blue pants, white shirt and blue snap-on tie of a St. B’s boy.

We’d exchange muffled “heys” as we adjusted our book bags, which were just that—coarse blue denim sacks with a white cinch rope at the top. Slung over the shoulder, they held a lot of stuff and made great swinging weapons to hurl at one another later in the day, when we were livelier than at 7:30 in the morning.
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Excerpted from an essay about famous people in normal circumstances

Miss Charlotte couldn’t get over it. She’d known me for most of my 25 years, but suddenly I took on a new aura. “Don actually goes to the bathroom with Freddie Bartholomew?” she asked my mother. “That’s what he said” my mom responded.

For those of a certain age, this was quite something. Freddie Bartholomew was to the movies of the 30’s what Macauley Culkin was to Hollywood in the 90’s. But just as young Macauley, once the highest paid child star in the world, grew out of his adorable adolescence, Freddie did too.
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“South Africa,” he murmured.

I pushed back from the railing and turned, surprised to see him still standing there.

It was late November. A black-and-white day, with a bracing breeze pressing 40 degrees hard against unprotected faces. They said it might snow for Thanksgiving. It felt like it.
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