Donkey Oatie, The Atlantic Ocean and More: A True Story

[Pam.  Photo: Patrick Egan]

Every so often I run across someone with a story to tell.  Often, the encounter is in a pub in New York City, Yuma, Arizona, Juneau, Alaska or someplace in between.  For example:
  • About twenty-five years ago I met a guy who claimed he had parachuted off one of the Twin Towers of the WTC.  He said he was promptly arrested.  I didn’t buy into the story at the time.  Maybe he did…maybe not…guys say a lot of stuff in bars.
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  • A few weeks ago I met a musician in an Irish pub on Amsterdam Avenue.  He said he knew Bob Dylan quite well.  He said that Dylan called him one day about ten years ago and complained to my new friend about his (my friend’s) recording of One More Cup of Coffee.  The phone call ended with Dylan hanging up on my friend.  I don’t doubt the truth of this story.  They guy seemed genuine and quite sincere.
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Then, a few nights ago, at our home on Rainbow Lake, NY, we had our friends Pam and Hans over for some wine and cheese.  (This was the couple who sold us the R-Pod that I blogged so much about during two cross-country trips). We sat in our screened in porch and talked.  I told them of my long time dream to hike the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail (I’ve never really had much interest in the Appalachian Trail).  Then Pam began a story that made me pull my chair closer to her.  I grabbed a notebook and a pen.  I took notes about her adventure.  I paid attention this time.  It was a story worth hearing–and it was a story I had to write…
Pam was twenty-something in the early 1970’s when her father passed away.  Her dad was the rock, the foundation of her family.  Her parents had met and married during WWII.  He was apparently a man of big dreams and those dreams brimmed with adventure and travel.  He dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail–he considered walking across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  When he died, his dreams died with him.

The bond between Pam’s mother and father was sublime and solid.  So it was no great surprise that his death created a void in the world of Pam’s mom.  She went into a deep depression and this darkness alarmed the family.

. . .

One New Year’s Eve, Pam and her two brothers sat at the dining room table pouring over their father’s maps and articles, thinking of his unfulfilled travel dreams.  The siblings sat and pondered about what they could do to honor their dad’s memory and perhaps to bring their mother back into the light.  That night a plan was made.  Why not take their mom on a journey–something that would approximate the cross-country hike?

But, could their mother, now in her 60’s carry a full backpack on a lengthy hike?  It seemed unlikely, so another decision was made.  They would use a donkey to carry some of the load!  The Sicilian donkey was purchased from a farm in Massachusetts.  One of the siblings came up with the name Donkey Oatie.  It seemed to fit.

“Let’s start at Harriman State Park in New York State and head west.” I could hear the brother say.  “We’ll see how far we get and when feel we’ve had enough, we’ll end our trip”.
The family looked at each other and must have been thinking the same thought: “An impossible journey…it’s 840 miles of walking!”  But the planning went forward, nonetheless.
They mapped out a trip through New Jersey and Pennsylvania using State Parks as campgrounds.  When they reached the Keystone State, they ran into a problem.  NO PETS ALLOWED in many of the parks and a donkey was classified as a pet (?).  So they took to the back roads and soon found that this “very private trip became a very public one”.  A family friend was an AP photographer and he began phoning newspapers and Fire Departments along the route.  It wasn’t long before the travelers were being greeted by small crowds in small towns and villages.
But, it was on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town where the story takes a special turn.
They were invited by a woman to have lunch on a lawn.  This stranger, this woman brought her mother out of the house to join everyone for lunch.  The mother had her own story to tell.  Sadly, the mother had terminal cancer.  She had also lost her husband.  Pam’s mother and this woman spoke about dreaming of destinations.  It was a widow to widow conversation.  The ill woman said that her life-long dream was to see the ocean..but something always came up and the trip never took place.  The daughter sat nearby and listened to the talk of the unfulfilled dreams of two women–who had both lost their husbands.  The ill woman told Pam’s mother how much she admired her efforts to fulfill her dreams and that of her late husband.  Pam’s mother told the woman that the sea wasn’t so far away.

The daughter sat and listened.  Several weeks later she did indeed make the trip with her mother, who finally got to look out over the sea.

The woman died two weeks after the trip.
Her daughter wrote later and told the family that she would always be grateful for the advice of Pam’s mother.  She said in the letter that those two weeks gave her that precious time to bond in that final way and to say good-bye to her mother.
Since that evening on our porch, I’ve thought about my own dreams of making a journey..but my plans seemed lame and insignificant when compared to the story I had been told.
And, besides, how could I ever make such a difference in the lives of two strangers from a simple lunch on a lawn in Pennsylvania?
The answer came to me during a sleepless night.  You really can’t plan for such outcomes–they somehow seek you out and fall into your lap.  The important thing is that you take that first step on the journey that only you can begin.

And, why are all such journeys of such importance?  Why was the terminally ill mother and her daughter’s trip to the Atlantic of such importance?  Why did Pam’s trip with her mother..attempting to honor the father’s fascination with journeys..make such an impression with a stranger on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town?  And why did the story touch me so much?

It’s all been said so well in a cliché, an old saying, a common remark made in many situations..You just don’t know how long you have on this earth..every moment is precious..and can never be regained. 

Kissing Manhattan Goodbye

So, it’s time to say farewell to the city I love.  A week from today, if you have a drone, you will find us driving north on the I-87…through Albany…onto Exit 30…and then fifty more miles, through Lake Placid, to our home at Rainbow Lake.

I’ve heard it said so many times: “New York City is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Fine, I understand everyone has different tastes.  Besides, it’s all true what people say about New York.  It’s so big, crowded, diverse and varied, that whatever anyone says about the city… is true.  It’s safe, dangerous, cheap and way too expensive.  It’s all true…but I love the vibrant life, liberalism, culture and gravity.  Yes, there is an intense gravity to this place…someone once said that everyone should live in New York City at least once in their life…and I agree.

I lived on the Upper West Side for over twenty-five years.  With some exceptions, I loved every minute of my time.  Then, I retired and in 2011, Mariam and I decided to get bought out (our building was going condo) and we decided to head north to our place on Rainbow Lake.  We needed the quiet.  Mariam went part-time, working from home on the computer.

We got our quiet…sometimes, it seemed to me, a little too much.  I was lonely.  Only a few of our friends made the six-hour trip to visit us.

Then, we were offered the opportunity to come back for six months, on a full salary, to put things in order at Mariam’s place of business.  We got a sub-let on W. 74th Street and became New Yorkers once again.  I saw my son more often and reunited with old friends.

But, not all went as expected.  For reasons I won’t discuss here, I found myself falling into a mild depression.  I brought many of my “works-in-progress” for my writing  projects.  I lost the creative energy to plug-in my memory stick and write a few chapters.

The winter was wet and chilly.  The spring was little better.  Then it got really bloody hot.  But, we saw a number of Broadway and Off Broadway shows that were fantastic.  We made friends at our local pub, the Beacon Bar.  We had a good time.

And, now, we’re packing things up…unread novels, unread magazines and putting away unfulfilled trips.

This was kind of an experiment ….to see if we could ever move back here.

I’m conflicted.

The “Dream House in the Woods” can sometimes  be something you’re not expecting.  Where are your friends and local pubs “where everybody knows your name?”

It’s just another move in our lives.  Mariam will be retired and I need a hobby.  I was thinking about carving duck decoys….I’m serious.   Maybe I’ll write the Great American Novel. Maybe I won’t.

Maybe I won’t and just drift on my kayak.

Stay tuned.

Six Days Can Be A Long Time

[Photo credit: Mel Brown]

The moment happened a few hours ago.  I was probably sitting in Starbucks on Broadway and 75th Street when the time came and went.  I was aware of the time, but I was likely checking my email.  Our apartment wifi was dead for the time being.

It was an arbitrary time, marked only by a sweeping second hand on an office wall clock.  It turned over at 5:00 pm on June 12, 2017.  One moment it was 5:00 pm, and then it was another time altogether.

So, what’s so important about this?  That changing moment marked the end of a work day for my wife, Mariam…an ordinary work day.  But, now, she now has only six days left to the end of her working career, her fifty-one years in health care is coming to a close.  That’s a long time of working and an inspiring event to celebrate.  Ever since she graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing, she has changed bed pans, helped AIDS patients, started up a cardiology unit in a hospital, and rose to being the head of the hemophilia treatment center at Mount Sinai Hospital.  She also is the president of two boards, both in the bleeding disorders world, in the intensive and competitive world of New York City.

I have expressed my concerns about the vacuum that will enter her life from a powerful position…into retirement.  She says she is not concerned.  I trust her instincts…but I still worry.

Her boss, Dr. Chris Walsh, is now reviewing aspects of her job.

“I’m going to miss you,” he understated.

I am proud of Mariam’s accomplishments.  I am looking forward to when she will be by my side, each day…for years to come…to travel and to sit at home…reading, playing chess, discussing politics and learning new things. We’ll be having a quiet dinner at a small Italian restaurant on 73rd St. on June 21.  Yes, June 21, her final day…and the traditional Summer Solstice.  How appropriate is that?  The longest day of the year.  The days will be getting shorter, but I will be there with you, Mariam, to help you through the long winter nights to come. And, I will be there on December 21, the traditional Winter Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer.  I know that’s the date you look forward to the most.

I will be there when the black flies come and go and the mesquitos arrive.  I’ll be there when the hail hits the roof and the leaves begin to fall.  I’ll light the campfire and I’ll play some Leonard Cohen for you on Spotify.  I’ll be there to ease you into your years of retirement.

Good luck to you, Mariam.  God speed!

Six days can be a long time…after all, that’s how long The Creation took.  Let’s hope there’s rest on the seventh day.

Kissing The Moon

[Source: Google search.]

So, there is a story.  It goes something like this:

A certain Chinese poet, Li Po, was said to have tried to kiss the reflection of the moon from his boat.  He leaned to plant the kiss…fell overboard  and drowned.  What is the moral of the story?

I am fascinated by the moon.  The werewolves, in legend, were dictated by the full moon.  The moon’s 28 day cycle has been linked with the monthly cycle  of a woman.

The moon.

I may have had my first kiss on a night of the Full Moon. I just don’t remember…I was moon struck. I walked home from a date one night when I was in high school.  My readers will know who the girl was.  I stepped into the playground of the elementary school where I attended for eight years.  It was a Catholic school.  There was a cross on the peak of the ‘tower’…I don’t know what else to call it.  I aligned the cross with the full moon that was rising over the Susquehanna River.  I looked across the street where, earlier, I had been sitting with my girlfriend on a stone bench…still there along Front Street…watching the moon rise over the ripples of the slow-moving river.

But, after my session with the moon and the cross, I walked home strangely altered…how? I can not say, but the experience stays with me.

Did we really walk on the moon?  I gaze at it often and wonder how, when a laptop crashes, we mustered the technology to go all the way there and come back…a dozen times.

As a science teacher,  I once had a plexiglass disk with a moon rock in my hands.  It was unreal.

I used to talk to my fading sweetheart, when I was in college, from a pay phone…I could see the moon through the glass…I asked her if she would look out of her window, 1,200 miles away to see the same moon.

The same moon that shed it’s light on all of history.

So, what is the real story I’m trying to tell?  I’m not sure, I guess it’s about dreaming, night and desiring something that may be the last fatal desire.

Don’t try to kiss the moon…kiss the one you love…or love the one you’re with.

The moon.

[A Full Moon in Paris. My photograph.]

May Day, 2017: Take the Long Way Home

[Photo source: Me]

So, here I am looking at the new page of my really cool calendar.  It’s May.  Most people will think of flowers and perhaps rising waters.  I used to think of crocus.  That’s when my mother always said spring was here.

“The crocus are up beneath the evergreens,” she would say….for so many years….until she passed away on a beautiful Easter Sunday morning.

It’s also my 24th wedding anniversary.

But, I look toward the end of the May calendar and I see the last date: 31. That’s when I will turn 70 years old!  I try to get my mind around that fact, but I realize that I’m not ready.  I’m not ready to be or feel that old. Where did the decades go?  Who was I as 36?  47?  Who took the pictures?  Am I in anyone’s album?

I know what many will say: “You’re as old as you feel, etc…”  But that’s not the way I see it or feel it.
I have a delightful daughter,Erin, whose life is full with a fantastic husband and an awesome son, Elias.  She is turning 45 years old.  Where did the years go?

I have a son, Brian, who will turn thirty in mid-July.  Where did the years go?

See the calendar photo above? Did I ever pull back the curtain for anyone? I don’t think I did.  I spent a career teaching…but did I make any difference? I’ll never know.

There is a vase of lilacs just behind this laptop screen.  Mariam bought them today.  I can smell that special scent.  It reminds me of the giant lilac bush that grew just behind my childhood home.  So many memories from a fragrance…

I sometimes feel like I’m 18 again when I think of past girlfriends.  Many probably forgot my name over the years.  But, I know that all the young women I meet see me as their grandfather.  That is not good for the male ego of any age.

Thank the stars that I met a woman who is older than me, looks younger than me and has more energy than me and is a hell of a lot smarter than me.

Mariam.  You took a chance on me…like the ABBA song.

I just wish I had some creative energy…to write more and make her and my children proud of me.

I guess that’s what life is all about…finding a partner who shares the same values.

I did.

But, that doesn’t make me fear my turning 70 any easier.

[Me?]

[Illustration: Journey of Life: Constable]

 

The Count and I

So, I made a big deal on Facebook about the fact that I was undertaking the reading of The Count of Monte Cristo.  The reason for that was that my edition was 1,462 pages long.  The older I get, the more I think there better be something worth the investment of my precious time.  My son thinks the experience deserves a blog.  Well, here it is.

I realize that many of my friends on FB read the book in high school.  They are way ahead of me.  I read The Tale of Two Cities in 11th grade.  I read Steinbeck and Hemingway on my own.  It’s just that a few classics somehow got by me and I am now trying to play catch-up.

But, I ran into some obstacles in my reading of the “modern” writers of note.  I avoided Infinite Jest because I thought it was overwritten and a little pretentious. [The footnotes drove me crazy.].  I also avoided Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow because I had trouble following the plot (if there was one).

But, I found The Count of Monte Cristo to be one of the best of the classic books I’ve ever read.  It was a page turner.  Not in the way that the Russian Masters like Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, but I thought Monte Cristo was much more engaging.

It’s themes of love, love lost and vengeance resonated with me.

Next up is the long overlooked David Copperfield.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell is in My Kitchen

The ice cubes freeze quickly, too quickly. I don’t even have time to think what the ice was for…a martini (I don’t drink them), a Coke Zero (I don’t drink it), a single cube to chill my wife’s Chardonnay?  Now, that’s likely.  But one thing I can say…and this can be a warning to all who own a GE fridge…beware of the freezer compartment.  If you linger with the ice cream or dally with the frozen chicken fillets, then you risk the danger of loosing a digit or two from your right hand…if you’re right-handed.  If you’re a leftie, it really doesn’t really matter, you’re only 10% of the population anyway.

And, God forbid, don’t fumble for ice cubes with one hand while talking with someone…not paying attention!  My guess is that you’ll bring out your hand with three black fingers (not a real problem; they can be amputated for frostbite).  But then you’re left with less than five fingers on your right hand (lefties: scroll on) and that will make it a problem to prepare a brisket of beef of leg of lamb. One could become a vegetarian at this point, but the menu you have in your laptop drops by several degrees (no pun intended) and you have to find something simple to chop and dice…hopefully not a part of your missing finger.

But avoid the freezer! There must be places in NYC that can deliver ice cubes.  And if you buy something frozen from Fairway that is already frozen, move fast and wear protective garments.

This freezer is a killer.  It reminds me of Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.  That’s where the sinners guilty of treachery, (think of Judas) are frozen in the lake of Cycytus.  I don’t see a lake in the top of the GE fridge, but I know it’s there.

I dread dinner parties.  I know that I’ll be asked to “get some ice cream” for dessert.  I dread that request.  First, I have to pull out the Ben & Jerry’s at least 45 minutes early.  That will give me an even chance of getting a dollop without bending the big spoon or breaking the ice cream scooper.  And they don’t even belong to us.  The other alternative is to put the ice cream into the microwave for maybe 15 minutes…to soften it to a consistency less than marble or granite.

But putting ice cream into a microwave somehow seems counter-intuitive.  No one asked for Baked Alaska.

I’ve learned several things in this sub-let apartment in NYC.

  • Don’t eat ice cream at home.
  • Wear thermonuclear gloves when searching for the frozen chicken or fish.
  • Beware of GE freezers.
  • Don’t get involved in treachery.

Consider yourself warned!  You can’t sue me because my lawyer is a very treacherous person.

[Image source: Google search. Art by Gustave Dore.]