The Birdcaged Candles of Litchfield County

CandlesInBirdcage

I was at the cozy bar in Torrington, CT.  My wife was in the next seat.  Since I had been freezing all day, I chose a seat away from the door and the window.  There might be a chilly breeze blowing through the closed window…after all, our hotel window had leaks as bad as a pasta sieve.  I thought that maybe that’s the way people liked things in Connecticut, those hardy New England yank types.

We were looking over the menu for dinner.  For me, there was no choice, it was the chili.  What else would anyone else eat on such a cold spring night?

I looked to my left and noticed three 12 inch candles sitting in a bed of wax.  That’s not a big deal in most cases.  Who hasn’t seen four dinner candles sitting in their own melted wax…and the wax of previous candles, in a New England bar?

It took me about two minutes to notice that the candles were inside a fair-sized birdcage.

There was no sign of a bird of any kind.  My first thought is that this was a local bar joke played on strangers like us.

“What’s with the candles in the cage?” I was supposed to ask.

“Oh, that’s our version of Stravinsky’s Firebird,” would be the answer.  The locals would have a laugh on us.

I refused to be taken in.  After all, I had lived in Connecticut for almost ten years…and not up here in Litchfield County, but downstate toward NYC in the Gold Coast, Fairfield County.  I may have NYS license plates on my Ford Escape, but I wasn’t a true outsider.  I had lived in the fabled Fairfield County.  At the time I was living there, this was the home of such luminaries as Roger Glover of Deep Purple, William F. Buckley, Donald Trump, Paul Newman, Christopher Walken and the grandson of Howard Cosell.

The only person I know of who lives in Litchfield County is Henry Kissinger (and he might be in The Hague, addressing charges of war crimes).

But I digress.

I put off the question about the candles until the end of our meal (my wife had blackened Salmon).  As we were settling up the bill, I couldn’t resist asking the bartender about why there are dinner candles in a birdcage.

She looked at me like I had just asked her if she owned a 1952 MG TD with wire wheels.  There was a lag time of perhaps 10 seconds.

“Oh, you mean these?”

I looked around, thinking I had missed another birdcage with more candles.  No, there was no mistake.  I had my entire meal sitting inches away from the cage in question.

“Yes,” I said.  “There must be a story there somewhere.”

“Well, you see,” she began, “this bar is owned by a real crazy Irishman.”

“Careful, sweetheart,” I thought.

“He had his favorite bird in the cage…can’t remember what kind of bird it was.”

“Not important,” I said.

“Well, his girl friend’s dog got into the cage one day and ate the bird.”

I winced, picturing a dog on the bar eating a bird…on the bar…right where I had been sitting.  I kept my famous composure trying to figure out who to feel the most sympathy for, the bird, the hungry dog, or the bird-less Irish bar owner and what he must have said to his girl friend…or the girl friend.  She must have been devastated (to say nothing about the bird).

“And the candles?  Clearly they are a memorial of sorts, correct?” I asked.

“No, not really.  We had the candles around the whole dining area and the fire marshal came in one night and said that violated the fire code.  So the candles went into the now empty cage.”

I looked at the pool of wax and the three tapers (they were not lit) and thought about what a beautiful scene they made, right there at the end of the bar, the site of the dog/bird carnage.

Just above the birdcage was a TV monitor showing the latest scores of March Madness.  As we put our coats on to leave, I was tempted to ask if the relationship between the bar owner and his girl friend survived the tragedy.  In nearly all similar cases I’ve heard about, the affair had ended badly.

I glanced at the TV as we reached for the door.

UConn was ahead.

 

 

The Old Schoolmaster

SanJuanTeacherStatue

You throw a pebble, a small boulder that you can barely pick up, or a grain of sand into a pool of water.  If there is no wind, you can watch the ripples move out in perfect concentric circles, ever-widening.  The tiny waves keep going until they reach an obstacle and they bounce off into another odd and unexpected angle.

You can never determine the ultimate destiny of the ripples just created by your action.  But, they’re out there somewhere, still displacing another water molecule.

If there is a wind blowing–a wind that changes and causes eddies in the once-calm water, then whatever you started with your pebble is now out of sync with the ripples you hoped for.

It’s a little like being a teacher.  You stand in front of a pool of calm minds and you toss out a pebble of an idea.  How it affects the waters of a child’s brain is out of your control.  Whatever becomes of your comment or question is up to the gods, or the parents, or an uncle or a bully or a future husband or wife of the child.  You can only hope for something humble–like making the child’s world (or future) better by even the smallest degree.

A metaphor: You (as an educator) are like the bed of a vast ocean.  The limitless water is the mind of child multiplied by ten billion.  At the same time, you are the tosser of the pebble, the sower of seeds, and the wind that changes every day in a young person’s life.

It’s a heady feeling…all this power over a mind.  They sit and pretend they don’t hear you, they draw goofy pictures of you as a fool.  They roll their eyes and pass notes.  They flirt with each other and wait for the bell to end the class.

But, they’re listening…maybe with half-an-ear, but they’re listening.

They pretend they don’t like you and that they fear you, but they also revere you.  Most often, they spend more time with you than with their parents.

It’s a heady feeling…all this power over a mind.  But it’s also scary as hell and unsettling as a ghost story.

In a small public park in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, hidden by many buildings, is a statue of a teacher.  I don’t read Spanish, so I couldn’t tell if it was to honor a certain person or educators in general.

I saw this statue and saw myself.  Not that I deserve a monument–God forbid!  But, on the figures shoulders and arms were children.  He/she was the foundation of those lives.

But, I’ve held thousands of young people on my shoulders in 33 years of living in a cloud of chalk-dust.

I don’t want a statue.  I just want to know that a pebble I tossed in 1973, is still causing a small waves in someone’s life.  I didn’t want to change the world, but only wanted a young mind to think again about something and begin to ask their own questions.

I wonder.  Is there one 57 year-old man or woman, someone I taught at a 15-year-old at the start of my career, sitting somewhere and remembering me and my pebbles?

 

 

 

Fabled Cuchlain

CuchulainStatue

In the lobby of the General Post Office in Dublin is a bronze statue.  It depicts an ancient Irish warrior, standing but slumped over in death.  If you look closely, you can notice that he is really not standing…he is tied to a stake.  A raven stands on his shoulder.  The sculpture is by Oliver Sheppard and was completed in 1911.

Is there a story here?  You can bet your last pot of gold there is

Cuchlain is perhaps the greatest of all Irish heroes. That’s saying a lot, since Ireland is a land of legends, folklore and myths that is second to none.

His story is complicated, his lineage is convoluted.  His legend is beyond doubt.

Cuchlain is believed to have lived in the 1st century, BC.  Legends began to be written about him in 700 AD.

With so much to his history, I will give you the only facts that bring us to the sad statue.

Cuchlain’s greatest victory was when Queen Medb of Connacht sent a great army to steal the Brown Bull of Ulster.  Cuchlain stopped the enemy single-handedly.  During one of the battles, he was put into a position to challenge his good friend, Ferdiad.  He fought him and killed him.

Later, he killed his own son, Connla, but learned his true identity after the fact.  Cuchlain went onto offend the goddess of death and battles, Morrigan.  Because of this, he was summoned to fight when he was ill.  On his way to enter the battle, he had a vision of a woman washing the body and sword of a dead warrior.  Cuchlain recognized the dead man…it was himself.  He knew then that his own death was at hand.  He fought with strength and honor and bravely.  Soon he was too weak to stand.  He knew his enemy feared him greatly.  So, he had his men lash him to a post so that he could continue to stand upright.

He died, still tied upright to the wood.  The enemy was unaware of his death until a raven landed on his shoulder.

There we have it.  Another Irish hero is dead, another Irish legend is born.

Perhaps, just perhaps, a tiny bit of Cuchlain’s blood flows in my Irish blood.

I’m no warrior and I carry no sword, but I’ve fought battles of many kinds, and even stranger things have been known to happen to those whose roots are on a small emerald-green island in the North Atlantic.

 

 

Arriving, Departing or Just Passing Through

I stood hard against the tiled wall and made room for the rush of human traffic trying to pass me.  I was thinking about insanity and the blindness of powerful people to hold sacred something that once had beauty and class.

Beauty and class are rare commodities these days.

I was in the bowels of Penn Station, somewhere between 7th Ave. and 8th Ave.  Somewhere between 34th St. and 31st St. Somewhere below the giant oval that is Madison Square Garden.

Somewhere, somehow something was missing.

I was waiting for the Adirondack, the train that would take us to Albany where our car was parked.  I looked around for the great wooden benches.  All were gone.  I had to wait inside an enclosed “waiting room” filled with plastic and metal seats.  The fast food outlets all sold the same wraps and bags of chips.  Somewhere, I’m sure, was a bar.  The small kiosk that sold the several daily newspapers were now Hudson News stores where I could get a hundred copies of Elle, Glamour and Men’s Health. I’m sure there was a shoe-shine, but I wouldn’t know where to look.

OldPennStation

I thought of the thousands of GI’s who kissed their Bronx girlfriends good-bye during WWII.  Some of them came home.  I thought of the many others, soldiers, men and women, who went off to conflicts.  Some came home.

I thought of an out of work salesman heading for Chicago…there was a possible job waiting for him.  Sometimes he came home to get his wife and head back to the Windy City to start life over.

There were the thousands of runaway girls (and boys) who could afford a train ticket from Wichita or St. Paul who came to the City in search of fame or fortune, or just wanting to disappear into the masses.  A few made a new life.  Most didn’t.  But at least they were solvent enough to afford a coach seat.  The ones who couldn’t save enough from the waitressing job in Akron, had to arrive at Port Authority Bus Terminal.  So many ended up on 8th Ave. selling themselves for a bottle or a vial.

PennStationSign

I looked for the Grand Staircase.  I found only escalators.  Where were the places where people stood and embraced?  Saying “Good-bye” or “Thank God you’re home”.  There was no place to stand and embrace.  Everyone was hurrying to somewhere.

Pulling rolling luggage, everyone stood looking at the big black board for the next LIRR departure or the next Amtrak arrival.

There was no place to stand and think.  So, I stayed pressed against the tiled wall.

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I’ve looked at the archives of Old Pennsylvania Station.  Things looked better in Black & White.  That’s the insanity.  The City razed the old station and built the place where I was now standing.

TimeTableatPennStation

I saw my wife through the glass partition.  She was waving at me to hurry over because the Red Cap was going to help us get to Platform 7.  The northbound Amtrak, the Adirondack was on time.

The small bottle of water (water used to be free) cost about $3.00.  A bag of peanuts made me $3.25 poorer.  I looked over the turkey and cheese wraps.  More bread than turkey and cheese combined.  I thought about Ptomaine.  I passed on the wrap.

I slipped on my backpack, walked past four National Guard soldiers with AK-47’s on their shoulders and met my wife.

Before we boarded, I swallowed the diuretic I was taking.  Try dealing with that forty-five minutes later in a small bathroom on a train that swayed like sailboat in a gale.

 

 

Don’t Cry For Me, Puerto Rico: My Final Postcard

BreakWaves

If you want to use Google Earth to find me, just enter 18.44 N and 66.01 W.  That’s me, sitting at the beach bar waiting for an order of nachos.

I’ve licked my last stamp and stuck it to the corner of this postcard.  I won’t be writing to you anymore–from this place.  This is my last day.

So, I’ve spent seven days at Condado Beach.  I admit that I’ve done nothing that several million other tourists, before and after me, haven’t already done.  I didn’t find an undiscovered gem.  I didn’t walk a virgin path.  In fact, I’ve done less than most people who come here given our limited budget.  I’ll be washing the sand off my feet soon and in the morning we’ll take a taxi to the airport.

I only purchased one tee-shirt and eight postcards.  That’s really good for me.  Oh, I almost forgot, there is a new refrigerator magnet in our luggage.

I’ll be honest.  I really don’t want to go home just yet.  I found this island fascinating, fun and full of potential as the salve I need right now.

I’ve shared what I’ve done, but what about the places unseen and people I never talked to?  Those are left for the next time.

I can only think of those brief moments, scenes, people and impressions that I chanced to experience in this too brief a time:

A pretty teenage girl stood in a small park.  I asked if I could photograph her.  She was wary.  In five seconds, her family appeared.  I talked fast.  I snapped quick.  I walked on.

SanJuanGirl

Inside a church, there was a small wedding.  maybe nine people witnessed besides the videographer and the priest–and me.  The bride wore scarlet.

The cobblestone streets of the Old City were said to come here as ballast in the ships that sailed centuries ago.  The ballast for the return trip to Europe?  Gold.

CobblestoneStreetOldSanJuan

The buildings of Old San Juan were pink and mint green and yellow and pastel hues I couldn’t name.

SanJuanSquare

There were homeless men on the streets, each one had a dog or two to assuage their loneliness.

I passed a small baseball park where Roberto Clemente played his first professional games.  There was a man on the beach with the entire (?) 23rd Psalm tattooed on his stomach.  There was room for all the text.

There was a young woman on the same beach in a slight bikini.  Her perfect shape and beautiful dark skin would have stopped a bus-load of Baptist ministers.

The graffiti on the walls reminded me of New York City in the 1970’s.  The tree frogs along Ashford Avenue sounded too perfect to be real–but they were.

***

My last thoughts?  They are like the last thoughts of these islanders.  My final memory is of a place where memories live, tears fall and dead rest.

Out on a large wind-swept lawn, with a historical site and light house, is a cemetery.  The San Juan Cemetery sits inside a 16-foot stone wall (the wall that protected the Old City for centuries).  The plots gleam white in the sun.  White and bright enough to bring tears to your eyes.  Beyond the thick wall, the sea waves crash against the rocks.  You look at the white cemetery, the white breaking waves and your eyes moves to the horizon.  There the sea makes a perfect line as it meets the sky.  Surely, the spirits of those who rest here must sit on their stones and admire the view of the moon-lit ocean.  As I stand on the high ground above, on the lawn where kite fliers run and laugh, I’m sure the spirits are down there in the daylight and watching the sea..watching the horizon..looking for the Final Boat that will take them away to whatever heaven they believe in.

SanJuanCemetery1

I’m thinking these things but I’m finding my words are inadequate in describing this wondrous place.

I don’t think anyone down in the cemetery, watching their kites or watching the sea needs my tears.

They don’t have to cry for me, either.

 

Postcard From The Bottom Of The Green Lagoon

I have only one thing to do and that’s to be the wave that I am and then sink back into the ocean.

Sink back into the ocean.

Sink back into the ocean.

–Fiona Apple. Theme from “The Affair”

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I know where my body is at the moment. I’m sitting on the sandy floor of a lagoon.  It’s quiet down here.  The only sound is the rush of air through my regulator when I inhale and the burble and gurgle of the bubbles that rise past my face mask with each exhalation.

Without question, this is where my body is.  But, my mind is in a different place, not unlike this–and it’s 33 years ago.  I say a prayer to Poseidon that what happened to me then, won’t happen today.  I say another, stronger prayer, more of a plea, to Neptune for I do not want to be green again.

It was 1982 and I was teaching in Connecticut.  I found out about Scuba classes being offered at the Norwalk YMCA and being in the youthful frame of mind of wanting to try everything, I signed up for the course.  It was to be a step, a tiny step, in being a Renaissance Man.  I desired to know a little something about a lot of things.

I passed the written test.  The next step was to pass an “open water” check.  That was a real dive in real-world water, in my case, Long Island Sound.

To make a very long and distasteful story short, I failed this part.  I never completed my certification.  The irony is that my mistake (and I made a capital one) was failing to remember the first thing one must do when you tumble backward from the boat.  I got the principle, I just didn’t act fast enough.  To equalize the pressure, I had to pinch my nose and swallow as soon as I felt pressure on my ears.  I waited a micro-second too long.

Too late. The damage was done.

I was fine while I probed about in the murky water of the Sound.  It was when my instructor and I surfaced and sat on a rock pile that had a small light on it.  With alarming casualness, he said that I was bleeding from my nose…and my ears.  I had ruptured capillaries in my middle ear.  Blood was flowing into the little chambers of my ear.  We inflated our vests and swam back to the boat.  Once aboard, I began a descent into a hell I had never known.  There was hardly any pain.  It was the spinning of the world around me.  It was the nausea.  It was the peculiar shade of green that made me blend in with certain species of algae.  And, it was the vomiting, the spectacular vomiting that followed that made my day.  The term “projectile” doesn’t quite tell the whole story.  Let’s just say that the already polluted Long Island Sound was diluting the remains of the last seven meals I had eaten.

No, on this day, in a green lagoon outside San Juan, that misadventure was not going to be repeated.  I took care to pinch and swallow often.  It worked.  No blood.  No problems.

This time, however, I chose a relatively new version of scuba diving.  Instead of wearing a tank on my back, my source of air was on a small raft 15′ above me.  My instructor was in full scuba gear.  What I was doing was snubaing.  I had a regulator and mask (fins, of course) but I was tethered to the raft.  In this way, I could stay submerged for an hour or more.

So, here I sit in the sand.  Watching the fish and listening to my exhaled bubbles.  My instructor was just ahead of me, lost in a cloud of stirred up sand.  I didn’t care.  I wanted to be alone for a few minutes.  I think he knew that.

I thought about my immediate environment.  I was here where it all began for life on earth..in the sea.  But, I had skipped several hundred million years ahead of the fish that surrounded me.  I was not a mass of proteins and amino acids in the Pre-Cambrian sea.  But I was back where I came from..so long ago.

It was a nice homecoming.

My instructor finds me and we swim off to find what sea life awaits us.  A small fish with yellow stripes approaches me, then another.  Soon, I’m nearly invisible, wrapped in a cyclone of fish bold enough to stare me in the eye through my face mask.

Eye contact between different species can be very interesting.

Terrance, the instructor, hands me a spider-like sea star.  It crawls over my hand and then drops off to scurry along the bottom.  There’s a flounder.  Or maybe it’s just shifting sand?  No, I see a flat fish with two eyes on the same side of the body (how that happens is another story).

There’s a damsel fish.  Here’s a sea urchin.  Down on the reef is an anemone.

After an hour, I begin to feel chilled so I signal to Terrance that maybe it is time to go up.  He agrees.

But, I really don’t want to leave this new world yet.  This environment of color, subtle movement and shifting sands.

I knew we really weren’t meant to be invading this place.  It belongs to other living beings, but they tolerate us and somehow, I feel welcomed.  In their tiny nerve centers, they know we’re all connected, somehow.  I know it and I’m sure that, on some level, all the life down here knows it.

Once upon a time, we were all one massive unit of life.  But, one bundle of DNA went to the dry land and the other stayed behind.

So, we left the sea and took to the rocks and soil and made our homes.  Some of us are in flight much of the time.  Some cling to a tree trunk or grow beneath a rotting log.  Some slither into dark holes and have forked tongues.  Some plow our fields and others sleep on our laps at nap time.

And, some of us build condos on the beaches and dump junk into springs.  The four-inch fish that looked me in the eye thirty minutes ago, is somehow feeling the effects of something done off the coast of Maine or in the Sea of Cortez.

We have done an excellent job of destroying our nursery..our birthing room.

We live, love and die.  We’re so important.

And, the life around me swims, mates and looks for food.  I look one last time into the eyes of a small fish.  It has done nothing to harm my world.  Yet, five minutes after I remove my gear and pay my fees, I’ll do something to denigrate life in the water behind me.

It may be as simple as stepping on an ant.

We surface.

I want to sink back into the ocean.

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Postcard From Condado Beach

CondadoBeach

There are times in life when a person has a particular need.  Nothing else is enough.  Only that one singular need.  If I were lost, ten miles from Badwater, in the center of Death Valley, that need would be water.

For me, in the bleak months of Winter ’15, that need is simply warmth.

Warmth.  It sounds so simple when you say it, but in the North Country, it is an elusive dream to pursue. Halfway to the garage, with a bag of recycles in one hand and the kitchen garbage in the other, I can shout it into the icy forest.

Warmth!

I’ve left messages but I don’t get a call-back.

Until now.  I’m sitting on the sand of Condado Beach on the edges of San Juan, Puerto Rico…and I’m finally warm.  Here is a little of my story…of how I got to find warmth.

A mere four days ago, we walked from Penn Station in New York City to our hotel on 28th Street and 7th Avenue.  We were pulling our rolling suitcases and carrying our backpacks through a heavy snowfall of thick, wet, clingy flakes.  It was too short a distance to take a taxi.  But the snow clogged the tiny wheels of our luggage and stuck to our coats.  We arrived at our hotel looking like Robert Falcon Scott on his return from the South Pole (that would be before he froze to death on his homeward journey).

I struggled with our suitcases.  Now I struggle with dragging a chaise lounge to the best possible position to see the water and feel the sun.

I close my eyes and feel the infrared radiation from a fire that is 93,000,000 miles away.  I hear the surf. Opening my eyes, I’m confronted with three colors.  The blue of the sky, the green of the sea and the light brown of the sand.  Then I become aware of more hues.  The breakers are white.  The few clouds are white.

My sense of hearing begins to pick up more sounds than the waves.  Faint music plays in the distance.  People are chatting.  A man peddling flavored ice cones is ringing a bell.  But, mostly it’s quiet except for the surf.  Colors of different kinds catch my eye.  I see the bikinis of the 22-year-old girls.  The suits are tiny, like little swatches of fabric.  They are bright like a road pavers safety vest.  They hurt my eyes even through my UV protective sunglasses.

My left shoulder feels like an overdone slice of bacon.  Is my SPF #30 strong enough?

Twenty feet away is a young woman in a thong.  Is there a thong?  Maybe not.  Maybe I’m getting too much sun.

I feel the need to run and jump into the water.  I get a few feet out and a wave hits my legs and it’s surprisingly chilly.  Then, after a few more waves, the chill is gone.  It’s actually warm so I wade out even further.  A large swell is coming at me but I deftly rise with it and then it’s breaking on the beach.  Not so lucky the next time.  The waves begins to break as it nears me.  I take a breath and dive into the wall of water.  The salt water injects itself into my half-opened mouth and my nose.  Hopefully, it’s killed any lingering virus in my nasal passages that may have incubated for months while I sat in front a fire back home.

It tumbles me in all directions.  I’m upside-down.  I’m backwards.  I’m roiling with the swirling power of the wave.  I come up for air in time to see another monster bearing down on me.  I’m twisted and turned again.  I have no control.  I check my designer earplugs from Walgreens.  I can’t hear anything but a roar.  Then I find air.  I gulp some and it happens again.  I’m overturned and flipped.  I think I hear someone singing:

“Here am I, your special island.  Come to me.  Come to me.  Bali Ha’i.”

I think I feel a mermaid brush against me.  Am I on the rocks of the Island of Sirenum Scopuli?  Is this a siren song?  Will I be able to resist?  Then I realize, it’s not a mermaid, but a boogie board tethered to a 9-year-old.

After several exhausting minutes, I’m back at the chaise lounge.  I notice that all the men my age have barrel-like torsos with white chest hairs.  They look like Hemingway (Ernest, not Mariel).  Me?  I look like an albino bank clerk from Lapland.  But, soon I will be a bronzed god.  I’ve already gone native.  I put on a small earth-tone necklace (a choker, really) but I take it off when I sleep.  I have a thing about getting my necklace caught around the bed post.

And, lastly, why the pigeons?  Where are the sea gulls?  Do they migrate?

Where’s the albatross?  When my necklace gets broken by the crashing surf,  I’ll need something to wear around my neck.

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