Archive for category Derek

The mystery of Mom

[Though I don’t intend this ruminative ramble to be linear, I think I should introduce the main dramatis personae, because it’s more about people than events. My mother is a reasonable person-place to start, since she’s where I started.]

My brothers loved my father and hated my mother. I didn’t love or hate either parent. I seem to lack the biological imperative. In freshman French at Penn we read Camus’s L’Etranger, in which the protagonist gets into hot water because he’s going to bury his mother but doesn’t care about her. I didn’t know he had a problem; his response seemed perfectly natural to me.
Psychologists might view my estrangement as a result of my upbringing. In part… maybe. In greater part, it’s a personal – genetic? just peculiar? – deviation from the accepted pattern. I didn’t lack an ability to love them only because love was seldom shown to me. Someone else – someone more empathetic, more spiritual, less empirically insulated – might have reacted differently.
Mom and I listened to the radio together. A lot. This was in the late ’40s, early ’50s. We laughed our way through Jack Benny and Phil Harris every Sunday evening and enjoyed Tonto getting knocked senseless during each weekly episode of The Lone Ranger. We shared a skewed sense of humor. (Dad had one too, with a different skew.)
Mom wanted to be a writer, a journalist. Sometime in the ‘40s she took a journalism course downtown at the Junto, a learning site supposedly founded by Benjamin Franklin (in Philadelphia, anything original – except the cheesesteak – is credited to Benjamin Franklin). Instead, around 1950 she became a church secretary. (What did she believe in? I have no idea.) At least, part of her job included writing the church newsletter.
She resented her scattered upbringing: kicked from one relative to another up and down the East Coast in the 1910s, castigated for her crossed eyes, no time left to develop friendships or stability. I think she saw my father as her intellectual inferior (wrong) and resented her professional limitation of being a woman (right). Her misery, which she kept from the outer world but which suffused her family relations, sprang in equal parts from her background and a personal darkness.
I too lived in a confusing number of places while young (though all in a small area). After WWII, we moved from South Ardmore in the rural Philly suburbs to a second-floor apartment at 3406 Baring St. in Powelton Village, a small Victorian neighborhood across the Schuylkill River from the art museum.
At that time there were only two colors acceptable (or known?) to paint your house in Philly: dark-chocolate brown or park-bench green. The drab, ill-kept Powelton Victorian houses, filthed with a half century of carbon from the trains passing the end of Baring St., seemed superbly ugly. (Yet they had mansard roofs! Where had I heard or read about mansard roofs that rendered them almost magical in my mind?)
Every two years or so Mom instigated our move from one rented house or apartment to another, all within Powelton. Each time, we would redecorate the new place before moving in – including complete reapplication of wallpaper and paint. Then “something” would make relocation mandatory. Possibly this was a reflection of her own turbulent childhood. As likely, she was looking for a sense of completion she never found, anywhere.
She had a minor obsession with sawing the legs off furniture. She lopped them off our china cabinet so it could be placed atop the dining-room bureau (similarly delimbed). But then we couldn’t open the top bureau drawer because of the pressure, so back down went the china cabinet, now oddly dwarfish.
Like humor, our joint interest in the Word – written or spoken – united Mom and me where our biological ties did not. I think she wanted me to be her literary surrogate. She encouraged my teen attempts to imitate Robert Benchley (his “essay” on curing hiccups is funnier than leprosy). Wherever I’ve half succeeded with writing is a belated gift to a woman whose mental acumen was never fully appreciated by her husband or her children.
And what was the impetus behind her material gifts to me – Christmas and birthday presents? She gave me a subscription to the Pogo comic book two years before the strip appeared in the papers. Where did she find it? How would she have realized it was the perfect gift?
Later, she presented me with the first Tom Lehrer album of whiplash satirical songs, filled with an irreverence otherwise foreign to ’50s America. How did she learn about Lehrer – no one I knew ever mentioned him. (Decades later I discovered that his first album could only be ordered directly from him – an underground mystery radiating from Cambridge, Mass.)
Around the same time she bought me short story collections by Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon, the most lush and wonderful fantasy/SF writers of the era. Again, how and where did she find them?
In short, there were sides to Mom that should have helped me love her. But didn’t.
I heard years later that she was physically abusive to my brothers Rod and Vic. With me it was psychological. She told me I had “no backbone,” and for years I slumped and scuttered: which was cause, which effect?
When I was five she found new, tiny dents in the living room coffee table that had “always” been there, in the way childhood furniture is eternal. She decided I’d caused the dents. Cornering me in our expansive Hastings Ave. entry hall, she relentlessly accused me until I admitted to having struck it repeatedly with a small metal hammer. I can still hazily envision myself holding that odd little hammer – I’ve never run across another like it – as I tap-tap-tapped the table. But did it actually happen? I don’t know.
Brainwashing: What an horrendous thing to do to a child.
She would read in bed and ask my father to fetch things for her. She said he liked to do it. Out to the kitchen and back he’d mutter under his breath in seething anger. More than once she told me, “We love each other but we don’t like each other.” Dad did not like her, did not love her. Each blamed the other for their getting married, as though it had been a mutual shotgun wedding.
During my last college summer working as a deckhand on Sun Oil tankers, Mom took up with a seedy Englishman after breaking off with my father, who had moved in with my eldest brother, Rod. Before the age of 60, she was mentally melting.
In our rented rowhouse on Mole St., near City Hall, Sir Bowel Movement sat and dribbled tears at the dinner table. I wanted to shove his face in his plate. Later, brother Vic found him in bed with Mom and threw him down the stairs. The bedroom floor was covered with urine-soaked sheets. Then she ran off with Brit Shit, somewhere down South.
When I returned home between my summer sailings, I found that she’d randomly sawed legs off several living room chairs and thrown almost everything I owned out the back window of my garret bedroom. Crazed with blind anger I crashed down all the furniture in her bedroom, including my favorite, a magnificent mahogany rolltop desk.
The neighbors, hearing the chaos, called the cops. When a cop knocked, I tried to slough the whole thing off, shrugging a lot, but he asked the right questions, looked at the mess upstairs and insisted I call my mother.
Odd that I had her number, wherever she was. On the phone she was plastered and sounded like Madame X from Nutcase Island. She and Lord Fartbody had plowed their car into a ditch somewhere. Then the cop talked to her. When he heard that she was non compos he let it go, spending time just talking me down. A damned decent, caring guy. A good cop.
As Mom slithered across the country she sent letters to me and to Rod. She had never before mentioned anything sexual. In one letter to me she included details on how to excite a woman by raking your nails down her back. I wish I’d kept those letters because… well, background is everything.
Next she wandered to San Francisco, a few months before I railroaded West for abortive grad work at Stanford. The Earl of Schmuck was gone (hopefully run over by something heavy).
In my Menlo Park dorm room I got a call from Stanford Medical that they were holding my mother. I found her wide-eyed, totally fucked mentally, somebody I didn’t know or understand. They declared her acceptable for release, though she couldn’t walk without me supporting her. Those bastards kicked her into the street because she couldn’t pay.
She had an apartment in Palo Alto. I maneuvered her there and became the guardian of a demented, crapped-up woman – me, who had never had a clue how to deal with the world. I don’t know where her rent came from: She claimed she had a boyfriend, of whom she was proud, a minor crook who robbed booze warehouses in San Francisco. I never met him, though one time she came home as disheveled as a street whore and said he’d beaten her. Did he exist?
I bicycled in those days, something I’d never done before (terrible sense of balance) and have not done since. I rode the local paths along dry washouts wondering if I should just plow myself off a cliff. I couldn’t keep this up. I called my brothers and mewled that I wanted to leave, to come back “home” (though nowhere I’d lived since age six was home).
Leave her flat, they said. Come back, forget her.
I did.
How wrong were they, how wrong was I? We left a decaying human being, our mother, to her own down-spiraling devices. Rod and Vic were protecting their simplistic little brother (age 22) by signing off on someone who had done them major wrong. Maybe all three of us lacked that biological-connector gene.
Mom was institutionalized in San Francisco. She sent almost coherent letters to me in Philadelphia. In a weird, half-assed way she was happy there. But, like every other medical motherfucker, they didn’t want to deal with her, so they shipped her back to Philly – to Byberry, the city’s huge, infamous nut-tank.
The move destroyed what was left of her. When I visited her at Byberry, she had aged 25 years in 18 months, grown chin whiskers, her face half evaporated, shuffling in hospital dunce slippers.
I never went back.
The surface-skimming doctors there credited her obliteration to a side effect of her recent-years dive into alcohol. No, it was the same dementia that had devoured her mother and grandmother at roughly the same age.
In the summer of 1963 I took my sole trip to Europe. When I arrived back, I found a postcard from Byberry lying on the puke-green dining room table telling me that my mother had died. I read the card and said, “Oh.”
When I think about it, that’s still my sole reaction.

She was cremated. At her request, Vic scattered her ashes in the ocean.

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I am Boots

I’ve been reading collections of fairy tales, public-domain stuff you can get for free on your Kindle. One was a Norse bundle with a 70-page introduction working to prove that the taletellers had turned the gods of Valhalla into giants who wanted to eat Christians (can’t blame them).

Anyone who was whelped on Grimm’s knows the ubiquitous three sons, who loom even more prominent in the Norse collection. Generalized plot: The father or king – somebody in deep authority – sets a seemingly impossible goal such as rescuing a maiden imprisoned in the farthest room of an impregnable castle. The two elder sons, over-confident wingnuts, charge out blindly to do the deed and get killed/captured/lost, or just poop out. 

Finally, the youngest son – the wastrel (in the Norse versions, he sits around all day with his feet in the fireplace ashes) – decides to continue the quest, in the face of general derision. He succeeds, in part through a fool’s fearlessness, in part through doing the unexpected, in largest part because he doesn’t give a damn about how things are supposed to be done or what will happen to him next.

In these translations from the Norse, the son’s name is always Boots.

I finished that collection and had an epiphany:

I am Boots.

I’m the youngest of three sons by some 13 years. While my elder brothers earned their bread through toil, and amassed enough moolah to meet old age with relative equanimity, I’ve blundered my way without a goal, with no clear idea of how one is supposed to exist in the world, not so much ignoring the rules as not letting them register. 

Of course, the parallel is limited: I have not gained half a kingdom (the default Norse reward for offing a giant). More significantly, my elder brothers were neither over-confident or thoughtless.

So, rather than a sneer at elder recklessness, this entry of mine is a paean to my brothers, Rod and Vic, who saved my butt more times that I will ever know, who showered me with kindness, who protected me throughout all the years of my growth, despite my battle against morphing into an acceptable human being.

Indeed, if they had a fault, it was in protecting me too well. When my father died, they made all the arrangements, did all the paperwork. When my mother went nuts in California while I was doing grad work at Stanford, they saved me from the consequences. As I squelched through life, “no direction home,” working half time or less, bumping from one odd job to another, they never said a condemning word.

Rod and Vic both died in their 80s. They lived “good” lives in every sense of the word. But if my brothers never fit the fairytale stereotype, nonetheless… 

I am still Boots – and still bootless. 

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What I’m doing

For the last few years, I (Derek) have been emailing out what I call “ruminations” to a bunch of friends. For no good reason, I’ve decided to post them here, in no rational order, hopefully one a week. I’m already out of order because I posted one before I wrote this to describe what I’m more or less doing. So you get the idea: None of this will make coherent sense, I just feel like doing it.

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The porch

Linda and I sit on the front porch on a late-summer evening, side by side on the old Voyager car seat that’s the most comfortable butt-nestler in the house, watching the sun go down. Invisible to all other houses in upstate Pennsylvania Sullivan County, we face west, tucked into the side of a wooded hill that rises quietly below and above to tell us all’s fine and decent.
The declining sun shines directly into our eyes, so we don straw hats, the brims canted low to filter the aggressive rays. The downslope of our trees and the upslope of a hill across the creek lie between us and the setting sun, which sheds a glory on the trees, on me, on life. It declines and incrementally disappears about 35 degrees above what would be the dead-ahead horizon. To the left (south), the hillside light withdraws slowly from the trees. It’s not a shimmer leaving, but a statement being sucked away, the sky reabsorbing what belongs to it and was lent for a few hours.
In its wake, the darkness nibbles up the hill with a sense of devourment. And I’m afraid. Not of anything. It’s a primal fear, laid against the unblemished glory of the dying sun. Sometimes I’m half falling asleep. When my eyes fly open, the slow darkening – the encroaching absence of light – has crept farther up the hillside. And I’m afraid. I nod off and waken. And I’m afraid. Not a big afraid, the little afraid that doesn’t require a reason.
In the city, the sunset often gouged me – my heart ripped out, the question of existence answered with a pitiful negative. Here, the afraid is a gentle sadness that holds the promise of tomorrow.
This evening, Leiao, our daughter Caitlin’s wondrous dog who lives with us, sits on a rock beside the porch, pretending we and the rest of the world do not exist (and why should we?). I talk to her regularly – josh, yordle, snicker and sing to her. Most often she pays no obvious attention, though I know she’s listening.
This evening, I say to her (as I often do), “Arf!” and a couple other stupid doggy things. She wiggles not an ear. Again I speak “Arf” – softer, more endearingly. She responds nowise. Then, in a conversational tone, I murmur, “Leiao, would you like to come up and spend some time with us?”
Without hesitation, she trots onto the porch and looks me in the eye. I’ve always known she was bright, but this is the first time I realize she can recognize syntax.
Between dogs and myself (sometimes a few yards, more often just a couple feet), I wonder what it means to be alive, especially at sunset.
Back inside, Linda asks me to stop getting blasted on foul, cheap whiskey sloshed into dying diet Pepsi. I toss the Pepsi. Much better.

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They eat trash, but so do we

The bears up here wander through the towns, people’s yards, onto the porches, decks, etc. They toss trash and rip down bird feeders but generally do minimal damage. Most people pay little attention beyond taking “cute” pix. Leiao, our recently deceased dog, treed a family of 4—mother and 3 cubs—in a mini-spinney right next to our porch about 3 years ago.
This year’s bear has been coming back every few days for the last couple months. The last tour, he/she overturned the compost bin but disturbed nothing, pulled open the door to the trash shed and hauled off a bag of trash without marring the door and carried the porch dustpan and brush down the steps without leaving a mark on them. Apparently a considerate but very curious critter.
Last night, Gracie (newest dog) was growling by the back door, then shot out so fast she ripped the screen loose and chased something off into the woods. Or so we thought. Reminded me I needed to bring in the bird feeder. Opened the door to the front porch–Linda and I were in the front room with all the lights on–and something directly in front of the door shot sideways off the porch, breaking the lower railing. Seemed too soon for the the usual bear to have gotten around front, so maybe we have a whole family who have targeted us–and possibly learned diversionary tactics. I’m beginning to feel they’re smarter than we are. Have they learned that when the lights are on inside, they can see in but we can’t see out?
As always, besides the broken lower rail from its panic, there was no damage to anything else–no footprints down below, not a flower disturbed, one small rock dislodged. Wish I could hire them to do the gardening.


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The Church of Unlimited Ammo

In a sense, those who say more gun laws will not save lives are correct. Because the problem is not laws, not even the guns themselves, but the gun culture unique to the U.S. We are the only country where the dominant religion of roughly 1/3 of the population is guns – not Christianity or any other normally recognized faith – with the Second Amendment as the only recognized scripture. That more guns increase safety is a matter of faith, and as such unassailable by logic or reason. Nothing will change until that tenet changes.
New laws to control guns won’t stop the next multiple killing or the one after it, though they might help start a change of attitude. What we need is not (just) new laws, but an outlook that places human life above gun ownership. That’s not currently the case. The “right to bear arms” in the minds of possibly half the adult male population outweighs the “right not to be killed.”
It’s hard to comprehend how such a mindset came to be, but it’s been fed and manipulated by the NRA and its followers. I must admit my most ironic fantasy is that some joker with an assault rifle will march in, openly, and obliterate the board of the NRA. That’s hardly an ethical or pacifist attitude, and I doubt it would improve the situation or change a single mind. But it would give me a warm feeling in my tummy.


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Lumbering along

A crew has been lumbering the shit out of the area lately because the Chinese are paying twice what the local sawmills do for hardwood. It’s shipped over, sawn (some to thinsy-winsy veneers), processed, then shipped back for I’m not sure what. Home Depot? All the loyal “buy American, support our country” locals have their hands out for Chinese checks with no problem. (Don’t blame ’em whatsoever).

Our little woods might have a few trees worth something, but talking to Rick, the deforester boss (who I liked a lot – open, straightforward guy), he’d have to rip our ten acres to flinders to get to them. I like trees better than people, so why the hell for a few bucks?

His crew was cutting on the 4th of July. He expects the Chinese price to go down and/or he has a deadline to meet and/or a bonus for early delivery. Guys like him I can respect for working their asses off 7 days a week, being honest about what they’re doing.

He seems to know everything I could imagine about trees (even though he left devastation behind at our uphill neighbor’s – not that Ralph would care). He told me that damned near every species of local tree is in danger of obliteration of one sort or another. We’re already having almost total loss of the beech, elm and ash population, with at least three types of threat to the hemlock – the major native tree.

He knows the stupidity of how the world works and what the result might be – almost total deforestation, because we’ve introduced every possible killer insect, fungus, etc., worldwide.

It will even out eventually, I suppose, but long after you and I have added our bones or ashes to the soil – which should do a little good.


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My Lyme is your Lyme

As some of you may know, Linda has Lyme Disease, which was treated for a month with antibiotics strong enough to leave her almost immobile a good deal of the time. She seems fine now, but it could come back. It’s hell to get rid of – maybe impossible (see below).
Lyme has become a true scourge up here, and apparently in other areas of the U.S. and other parts of the world. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to call it a hidden plague. The symptoms run the gamut from itching to rashes to muscle ache to fever to, so help me, brain malfunction, which makes it hard to diagnose – you get the supposedly “typical” rash and bullseye in only about 15% of cases. That’s also left it remarkably unrecognized overall, even up here: Pennsylvania is the epicenter for Lyme, with roughly a third of the cases reported across the country. And the test for it gives a lot of both false positives and false negatives (Linda came up negative the first time, then with one of the highest positive readings our doc had ever seen two months later).
The woman who published my first book (a PA native) has dropped out of publishing to get a more lucrative job because her husband had undiagnosed Lyme for years and can’t work regularly. With Tammy, who runs the embroidery shop in town, it affected her brain to the point she thought she was going crazy or getting early dementia before it was diagnosed. I’ve now talked to 5 or 6 others in which it chugged along, unrecognized, with lasting, debilitating effects.
It gets into areas of the body with low blood flow where it “hides” from the immune system and is seldom fully cured. So far, there’s no vaccine because it’s crept under the health radar while zika got all the publicity (and funds). If you’re not pregnant, Lyme looks like a far more virulent bastard than zika.
Don’t you love to get the latest apocalyptic health news?



First book party

Come one, come all to Winterland Winery, 15 Flat Road, Lopez, PA, for a signing of Gifts of a Dead Man, June 18, 6-9 pm. Wine and Indian food. Probably a good deal of silliness too (at least we hope so).