The Night Lauren Bacall Heard Me Cough

[Photo source: IMDb]

I lived for almost thirty years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It’s an artsy neighborhood. And it’s not uncommon to cross paths with famous people, most often actors. My wife was in the Blockbuster Video store, in line behind Michael J. Fox.

“I think your next,” he said to Mariam.

“And I think you’re great,” she said to him.

She stood in line at Fairway on Broadway behind Francis McDormond.

“I love your work,” Mariam said.

“Thank you,” replied the Oscar-winning actor.

I had a moment of greatness too. I went into our neighborhood Mexican restaurant…Gabriella’s. I calmly walked passed a chubby guy sitting at one of our favorite outside tables…with his family. He had cut off denim shorts, a thin wife and a hefty kid or two.

It was James Gandolfini. Tony Soprano was sitting at my table. I didn’t raise a fuss. I’ve been to Jersey City. I knew the deal. First come, first serve.

That was life in New York City!

Let’s go back in time. It’s 1984. I’m an exchange teacher in Dorset, England. I befriended a young woman when I signed up for a screen-printing and etching course at the Poole Arts Center. I made sure I sat near her. She was pretty and a very good artist…and a gourmet cook.  I still have one of her etchings on my wall. She was a mid-wife, a surf-boarder and a sweet attractive woman. We became friends. We went out for eats and a pint or two after class. She promised me she’d teach me how to wind-surf in Poole harbor. We never got to do it.

But one thing we did get to do was see a play.

I had tickets to the Salisbury Playhouse production of Sweet Bird of Youth.  I asked her if she would like to go. Yes, she said.

[This is the movie with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. Photo is mine.]

“How about dinner?”, I asked.

“I’m a good cook what do you think you would like?”, she said. I made a joke. “Oh. Shrimp Scampi and some caviar.”

She picked me up in her MG (mounted with a wind-surfer board rack). She had a picnic basket. I peaked inside. There was shrimp scampi, caviar and a bottle of white wine. We spread a blanket on the lawn in front of the main entrance of Salisbury Cathedral. The air was crisp. The food was awesome. The view was breathtaking.

We finished and made our way to our seats at the Playhouse. The lights went down. Sweet Bird of Youth began. Lauren Bacall was playing aging actress. I don’t recall the leading man.

That’s when Lauren and I connected.

There was a scene where she was lounging on a bed, waiting for her lover. The theater was stone quiet. The silence was intense. But the need in my throat couldn’t linger. I needed to cough.

I coughed.

She didn’t look into the audience like they do now days when a cell phone goes off. But, I knew she HAD to have heard me cough. There was no other sound. Only me.

Years later, I flipped through her autobiography in a narrow aisle at a Barnes & Noble. I found no reference to me, the cough, the disruption, or the shrimp scampi. I wonder how long my cough stayed with her.

I have a feeling that I was no match for Bogie.

“You know how to cough, don’t you? You just lower your head and make a gasping sound.”

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An August Omen

Omen n. Something believed to be a sign of good or evil.

–The American Heritage Dictionary

Can you see it? Between the two large trees…behind the birch. I can see it. I first noticed it a few days ago but held-off saying anything about it.

It’s not a cardinal or an oriole.  It’s a leaf. And it’s turning red. So are the few other leaves on the same branch.

I know about omens. For example, I don’t need a crystal ball or magic stick to know that my next flight on American Airlines is going to be painful. Painful because I have two legs and American must assume you won’t need them during your flight. Other than that, I’m Irish and the Irish know omens.

But the leaf omen is telling me something special. It’s a warning from the Weather Gods of the North Country. Leaves, you see, are not supposed to turn color until it’s autumn. That’s the rule I grew up observing when I lived downstate New York.

But its August. August 22 to be exact. Legally, its still Summer. Fall colors are not to be a part of ones life until late September or October. Trick or Treat time, when you walk down the street and kick leaves dressed as a vampire.

So, what does all this mean? It means that WINTER is around the proverbial corner. I mowed the lawn once this summer. I haven’t blown the leaves and pine needles off the roof yet. And, yet, these leaves are telling me something:

“Winter is on the way. Get your snow shovel out and keep it handy.”

(Yes, I listen to the leaves. Is there a problem with that?)

I just put the shovel away in the garage. What am I supposed to do? Things are happening too fast for me. I’m retired. I should be slowing down.

But no. Winter in the North Country is just weeks away. It’s almost September. I predict that before the end of October, I’ll need to bring out the shovel again.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fall colors…all eleven days of them.

 

 

 

 

It Just Isn’t That Simple

I am waging a war here in the North Country. I am waging a war against spiders. I am the General and I am losing. Look, we bought the house in 2000, but the spiders think they are the real owners. That’s eighteen years of warfare. The two World Wars didn’t last that long. Okay, you can talk about the Hundred Year War in Europe, but I’m not a historian and I’m sure it wasn’t about spiders.

I could stop the small weapon action with the whisk broom and rent a power washer. I could blast every shutter and every cornice and every eave. But I would lose. Seven minutes after I drive off to return the power washer, there would be a new spider web being spun, like a never-ending fairy tale. Sometimes I feel like we are living in something like the Addams Family house…or Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Spiders. Living in the woods. Where is Stephen King when we need him?

I guess it just isn’t that simple.

I spotted a cluster of Indian Pipes (Monotrope uniflora) on the path down to our dock. I always thought they were Saprophytes…living wholly off the decayed detritus of the forest floor. But no. I glimpsed something in the New York Times the other day that alluded to the fact that scientists are finding that the way the Pipes get nutrients is more complicated.

I guess it just isn’t that simple.

The other day, my wife, Mariam (this happened on her birthday) was thinking about particle accelerators. She asked me a question about String Theory and it’s relationship to Quantum Physics. (She knew I was a science teacher for 34+ years). I thought about the question for a minute. Then I told her:

“Honey, it just isn’t that simple.”

So, on a recent night, Mariam and I went to a concert.

The second part of the concert featured a world acclaimed pianist. Before she came on stage I looked up at the piano she was going to play. It was one large piano, a concert Steinway Grand…about the size of a ’49 Cadillac. If it wasn’t for its odd shape (like a piano) it reminded me of the coffin that Andre The Giant was buried in.

[Full disclosure: My son, Brian, lives not very far from the Steinway & Sons factory (when they built them in Queens). He has no connection with the Steinway company so I’m not sure why I’m disclosing this].

We were in the second row. Great seats except you couldn’t see the pianists hands working the keyboard (music terms)…but then again you couldn’t see anything on that stage because of the size of that piano.

She played the piece with total abandon and gusto. It was breath taking…except I couldn’t take my eyes off the collar of the guy in the front row. It was not straight. He was there with his wife (she sat in front of me) and two children.

My first thought was what kind of wife was she? She let her husband go out into public with a messed up collar. Then she leaned forward. A tag on her blouse (shirt, top…whatever) was sticking up. I thought what kind of husband was he, letting his wife go out in public with a tag showing in her mid back.

I considered making a deal with Mariam (she admitted being distracted by his collar after I brought it to her attention), that she could lean forward and straighten out his collar while I tucked the tag inside her top.

We were conflicted. Mariam rejected the idea.

I took another sip of Chardonnay from the ‘sippy-cup’ and settled back to listen to the last movement of a piano concerto.

But I couldn’t take my eyes off the couple in front of us. He was clearly in love with his wife. He kept looking at her and even stroked her arm. She paid little attention to his attention…she chewed gun during the concert.

Was this a dysfunctional family?  Did she really love him?

Then I looked at the two children they made together. The daughter was a pretty 18-year-old with freshly washed auburn hair. The boy was a well-behaved ten-year-old who sat patiently through a concert that he probably didn’t really want to attend. But this couple, with his collar and her tag, were responsible for their very existence.

I guess some things are just not that simple.

 

I’m Not Alone On A Wide Wide Sea

[NOTE TO READERS: I’M REPOSTING THIS BLOG ON MONDAY, JULY 2. IT HAS COME TO MY ATTENTION THAT MANY OF MY FB FRIENDS DID NOT GET THIS WHEN I FIRST PUBLISHED IT ON JUNE 27. I’VE MADE A FEW CHANGES. SOME PHOTOS ARE OUT OF THE PROPER TIME SEQUENCE.]

 

Sometime in the 1980’s, I came to the conclusion that I was getting older as each year passed. I projected that simple logic into the future and realized that there was, essentially nothing I could do about it.

So I read a book. It was the story of a man, Joshua Slocum, who sailed across the Atlantic alone. When I closed that book, I knew that was something I would do one day. A solo crossing.

A few days later, I was forty years older. Yes, I did get certified to sail a deep keel 26′ boat while Mariam and I spent two months in Florida a few years ago. I was given a log book where I was to keep track of my hours sailing.

There are no entries since we left Florida. I have not sailed since then. I must say that of all the things I ever accomplished, sailing was the one thing that gave me the most pleasure.

Well, maybe I’ll make an attempt when I grow up.

When this trip became a reality, part of my dream became fulfilled. The one part of my dream that was missing, was my being alone.

We departed Southampton about 5:15pm on Sunday, June 24. Before the boat left the dock, we had our first “drill” at 4.30. We assembled in our assigned area and actually put on our life vests. We were even allowed to test the little yellow whistles.

Sunset

[The sunset off the coast of Devon and Cornwall]

I am told that there are about 2,700 passengers aboard. The staff numbers 1,200. That gives a total of 3,900 people on this boat…the Queen Mary 2. According to the captain, there are people of 33 nationalities aboard. I guess they included Mariam and I, even though most of the people we meet in the bars and restaurants are either Canadian, Australian or from New Zealand.

I have made an educated guess that the average age of the total passenger population is 70.6 years.

NAV TV.jpg

[Constant information in our stateroom]

Britannia Restaurant.jpg

[The Britannia Restaurant, our assigned dinner venue]

Tonight is our second Black Tie dinner (Gala Attire). The only thing I get to keep from this rental is the bow tie.

[No comment necessary.]

The WiFi is spotty and very slow and I’ll be grateful if this blog post gets to you, my readers, before we dock in New York City on July 1. I began writing this on Sunday, the day we left Southampton. It’s now Wednesday afternoon.

Sunday morning we will be docking in Red Hook, Brooklyn. We will get the chance to see the Statue of Liberty as we enter New York Harbor.

Just like my ancestors from Ireland and Mariam’s from Asia Minor did, decades and decades ago.

[It’s hard not to tear-up when this comes into view..just as the sun was rising.]

 

 

 

Lancelot, The Spotless Starling And The Blogger

 

[Spotless Starling. Source: Google search.]

I’m perched on a chimney near the Ashfield House B&B with my friend, Tristram. We’re Spotless Starlings. You can find us on page 303 of Collins Pocket Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe. You might not find us in Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of  America, but we’re in the British edition.

My name is Lancelot. Some other Starlings think my friend and I are named for two of the Knights of the Roundtable, but that’s nonsense. The whole King Arthur thing is vague and not really provable, historically speaking. But, this Blogger that I’ve been watching…he believes. He’s been to the Glastonbury Tor and desperately wants to believe that Arthur is asleep, deep inside the Tor, awaiting the time when England will need him once again.

But, I digress.

Lance, I saw you keeping an eye on the American Blogger while he sat on his little balcony, sipping wine and eating cheese with his wife. What’s the deal?

Well, Tristram, as far as I can make out, he is a bit sore of foot and hurt in the lower back. And don’t even mention the pollen. It’s awful this year here in the Yorkshire Dales. He and his wife both sneeze enough to chase away the Morning Doves.

[Map is by Contour Designs Gloucester. Copyright Ordinance Survey, 2016]

So, Lance, has he gotten out into this awesome countryside yet?

Oh, yes indeed. Come let’s take to the wing and I’ll show you where I’ve spotted them. The first hike was short and hesitant. They walked between the stone walls to the River Wharfe and crossed the footbridge at Linton Falls. He wanted to visit the small country church at the end of the road.

How sentimental.

Yes, Tristram, he is a very melancholy person. Old mossy graveyards attract him. My theory is that he spends too much time thinking of his own mortality…but, hey, I only have a bird brain.

The next day they hiked down to the river and along a path that went beside some of those stone walls that everybody talks about. As I said, he was sore of back and his right foot was causing him grief. He didn’t feel he was going to make the entire 4.5 miles as described in the Short Walks in the Yorkshire Dales so he left his OS map and guide back in his room.

So, Lance, did he make it?

Funny thing happened. The two of them came upon a couple from Australia. They had a map but were unsure if they were going in the right direction. The Blogger once taught Geography so he knew maps. Then they met an older couple coming from the opposite direction.

Oh, don’t go up that way, the woman said. Me husband slipped and slid downhill on his bum. It’s like bloody mountaineeeering.

Soon the four of them, after walking up the steep bit, found themselves in an open and pleasant woods. The Blogger knew then, I could feel it from soaring over their heads, that he wasn’t going to retrace his steps. So, on they went.

Soon they came out of the woods. I could see them again. The wife seemed to find the wettest place to cross two pastures. And, by wet, I mean with recent cow pies.

Before I could find my favorite chimney, they were back in the center of Grassington and sitting at a pub. The couple from Australia joined them. They felt satisfied with completing 3.5 miles. I have good eyesight…the old guy took something called Alleve. It seemed to help.

But, somehow, Tristram, I could read his mind as he tried to photograph me. (I didn’t let it happen.) The old guy with the gray hair, gray beard and sore back wanted to hike again. He wanted to see Coniston Cold, East Marton, Sharp Haw, Winterburn, Ewe Moor, Captain Moor and Old Cote Mill Top.

But he never got there. They left two days later.

So, Lance, where are they now?

How could I know, Tristram? My range isn’t that far. Look it up in the pocket guide. But, I did hear them say one thing said as they were loading their car: the old guy said I wonder how Lichfield will be. Mariam, he said, do you think they will have Starlings waking us up in the morning?

No, it’s a Cathedral City, silly. They only have doves…doves of peace in places like that.

And they did.

 

 

 

Yesterday Afternoon And An Afternoon Thirty-Three Years Ago

[The tomb of Joseph and Caroline Damer]

Thirty-three years ago I parked a VW Polo in a small space a short distance from the village of Milton Abbas. I was an exchange teacher at a school in Dorset, England. A teacher friend told me that I must visit an Abbey near Milton Abbas. I was open for any suggestions so off I went on a Saturday afternoon.

I can recall the day in great detail. It was crisp and clear and the air was chilly enough to slice like a razor through my new heavy wool sweater. I walked along a gravel path. There was (and still is) a private school on the grounds of the Abbey. I was told it was where “To Serve Them All My Days” was filmed. The movie was a sort of “Mr. Chips” kind of story about a teacher who spent his entire professional life…teaching.

But, I digress.

I wasn’t there to see the school. The Abbey was my goal. I can’t say it was an easy place to find. It’s basically located in the middle of an isolated part of Dorset. The roads were narrow and the hedgerows were brushing against my left rear-view mirror. If I met an oncoming vehicle, one of us had to pull over and let the other pass by.

[The fields near the Abbey]

After walking the path, I stood at the front entrance of the Abbey. The exterior was covered with moss and lichen. It was a cathedral on a small-scale. The flying buttresses were almost reachable.

I opened the door expecting to enter a typical English church. Instead, I held my breath and stood, trying to take in one of the most awesome sites I had seen so far in England.

To my left was a marble tomb. The ceiling had vaulting that would make an architect sigh.

[Vaulting]

That was more than three decades ago. Yesterday, I revisited the Abbey with my wife. I needed Mariam to see this place. Nothing had changed with the exception of the organ that was wrapped to protect it from the dust of some interior work.

People had worshipped on this site since 964 B.C.E. That’s over 1,000 years of prayers and funerals, weddings and quiet contemplation. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a millennium.

The building I stood in yesterday is not the original. The first structure burned in 1309. Changes too confusing and complicated for this space occurred over the centuries.

In 1752, the Abbey and grounds were taken over by a Joseph Damer (Lord Milton). He had a wife, Caroline, whom he loved dearly. Death separated the two. She died young. Joseph commissioned a tomb of white marble-topped with an effigy of the two of them to honor their marriage.

I approached the figures. I reached out and stroked Caroline’s marble hair. I glanced up and saw Joseph staring into my eyes. His white marble orbs unnerved me.

“Take your hands away from my wife’s forehead,” he said with white accusing eyes. I ran my hand down her cold marble arm. I squeezed her delicate fingers.

All of it was cold white marble.

 

[A full view of the Damer tomb]

I still wear the heavy wool sweater that I had on that day, thirty-three years ago. Some things like well-made sweaters and Abbeys are made to last and last and last.

 

[Beauty and Death]

[The view from the entrance of the Abbey]

[Information source: britainexpress.com (Google search)]

[All photos are mine]

 

A Walk Through Lichfield Cathedral

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Some people have life-lists of the birds they have seen. Some people have collections of autographs of rock stars or artists. A fair number of people pay a ton of money for signed baseballs; signed by Ted Williams, Goose Gossage or Ron Guidry.

That’s great. Many of these things can be framed and mounted on the wall of the hallway or the study in  their home. Signed baseballs can be kept in glass boxes on an office desk of an attorney who is handling your divorce or settling your estate.

But some lists need special attention.

My particular list is visiting all the English Cathedrals that I can manage. I’ve not completed a “to do” a list yet, but I can add two for this trip.

A word about the “to do” list. This post is not about things. It’s about memories, faith, beauty of architecture, hope and thought. I’m not visiting these Cathedrals just to tick them from my list. I’m not visiting and photographing and saying…”I’ve been there and done that.”

No, I wanted to study the Gothic and Norman architecture of each place. Who is buried where? What Baron or Lord or Lady is buried against this wall? What Vicar is buried under our feet in the nave?

What farmer or mason worker lay beneath the grass outside, on the lawn, under the green grass…not invited into the floor or walls of the Cathedral?

But time was not on our side. Nor were many rules.

“NO PICTURES IN DURHAM CATHEDRAL”

So I discovered that I would be near Lichfield Cathedral. I knew this one was a winner from what little research I did before the trip. We went in and the size and structure of the nave and alters took your breath away.

Some images:

[The effigies of an older daughter and young son. William and Mary]

[The Nave of Lichfield Cathedral]

These are places that do not belong on an “to do list”

Places like this, of beauty and peace and contemplation can’t be kept in a photo file, only in your heart.

[All photos are mine]

[Note: I will post a video with organ music of the the time we spent in Litchfield when the opportunity arrives.]