My 400th Blog!

 

[Hi, I’m Fluffy. Remember me? My human, Pat, has used me in other posts in shameless attempts to peddle one of his books.  I hope you like this one. You see, Pat suffers from severe Post Holiday Blues and if he doesn’t get a lot of likes and comments…well, I may have to be sent out to pasture, if you get my drift.  Photo source: Google search.]

 

Writing four hundred blogs is not an easy thing to do.  Even if you’re retired and have little else to fill your time.  It’s an accomplishment of which I am proud.  Some bloggers have written thousands…some have written three.  I know how easy it can be for some people and much harder for others.

Back in the late 1990’s, I taught at the Town School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  One afternoon, the technology teacher, Al Doyle, mentioned to me that he wrote ‘blogs’.

“Blogs?”, I said.  “What are they?”

“Anything you want them to be,” he answered.

I listened and learned.

Sometimes the words would come easy to me and, on more than one occasion, I struggled with ways to communicate my thoughts and feelings.  Some bloggers have chosen ‘themes’ to address, such as marital problems, eating disorders, benefits of certain health foods, conspiracy theories, political rants and self-absorbed musings that interest only the writer.

I have chosen to go my own way.  I have no theme.  I write about topics that interest, amuse, fascinate, intrigue and beguile me.  I have experimented with various writing styles and subjected my readers to topics that some would consider morbid or overly maudlin and sentimental.

But, that’s me.  What you read is who I am and that is what you get.

I published my first blog on July 15, 2012.  It was an excerpt from my novel “Standing Stone”.  Since then, I have taken my readers on two cross-country road trips and a partial winter in Fort Myers, Florida when I learned to sail.  I’ve shared my experiences at a rodeo in Yuma, a hike in Zion National Park, a stroll among the sand dunes of Death Valley, a frightening drive pulling our RV into the Yosemite Valley, a Thanksgiving in Orting, WA., a month in Joshua Tree, CA., and several trips to Europe.

I’ve shared memories about childhood sweethearts, meetings with childhood friends and even wrote about the first woman who ever saw me in my life…the doctor who delivered me in a Binghamton hospital on May 31, 1947.

I shared the birth of my grandson and celebrated the lives of my son, Brian, my daughter, Erin and my wife Mariam.

One of my favorite posts was titled “The Brick Pond”.  It recalled childhood innocence and the coming of adulthood.

The blog that was the favorite of my readers was called “This Old House”.  In this, I attempted to convey the sorrow of handing over the keys to the house that I grew up in, a house that was in our family for over fifty years.

I sincerely hope that you, my readers, have enjoyed reading these 400 musings from a humble and insecure writer…myself.

I hope I live long enough to celebrate an 800th blog, or even a 1,000 posting.

Let’s hope.

 

[Source: Google search.]

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Joshua Tree Diary: Christmas in the Desert

[Desert view outside Joshua Tree. Photo is mine.]

This is where it all began, right?  I don’t mean California…I mean the desert.

The Nativity story is set in the desert; much like the one I see from my bedroom window.  Very much like it, except that desert, with the Star, is half a world away.

Two years ago, we celebrated this season in Fort Myers, Florida.  There, the temperatures were in the low 90’s.  I remember wearing shorts and sitting outside my favorite Java cafe, sipping an iced coffee.  I had to position myself at an outdoor table so I could catch the AC’d air rolling out of the brand name outlets.  The palm trees were wrapped in holiday lights, Bing Crosby was singing on the PA system, shoppers were hurrying into Bass, or Tommy…but the feel of the season wasn’t inside me.  Red and green lights and Bing didn’t fulfill the images on Christmas cards.

Now, this year, we are enjoying the high desert of Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, Yucca Valley and the Mojave Desert.  And, it’s chilly if not downright cold.  Yet I know there’ll be no white Christmas here this year.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing the Yule without even the probability of several inches of white powder.  That’s because I was raised in Upstate New York, where snow was mostly guaranteed.  I built snow-people, skated with my childhood friends and tobogganed the longest slopes I could find.  I studied the crystals of the flakes when I caught one on my mitten.  I believe it’s true that no two snowflakes are alike.

But deserts are alike in many ways.  Strange and exotic plants, sand, crying coyotes and the limitless sky…filled with stars and a crescent moon.

Ironically, though, it’s here, in the California desert, that I can feel the true sense of the Nativity story.  When you’re raised with religious images of Joseph and Mary traveling across the desert, it’s hard to meld that into a backyard in New York, twelve inches of snow and a snow person.  I’ve never traveled to the deserts of the Middle East so I can’t speak to the winters there, but I can’t believe that the winter in the Holy Land is much different than it is here.

True, they probably don’t have storefronts like these:

[Souvenir shop. Photo is mine.]

Or,

[Storefront lights in Joshua Tree.  Photo is mine.]

But, maybe they do.

I can imagine the solitude, the expansive star-filled sky…and the silent peace that fills those scenes we were raised with, in the pages of the Bible.

About an hour from where I write this, a raging fires is destroying hundreds of thousands of acres near Santa Barbara.  Peoples lives will be ruined.  No holiday cheer for them.

No fires will come to the desert.  There’s nothing much to burn.  It’s vacant and austere backed up by isolation and loneliness.  That’s the way deserts are.  Places to get lost and places to stand and contemplate the ways of the world and to confront the Great Empty.  That’s when you find that the Empty is not only a physical description of a desert…but also of your own mind.  The Desert Fathers of the Old Testament sought these places out.  The three great religions of the West were founded in the sands.

How different the high desert is.  There is, outside my window, all of the above (along with our rented Toyota), but there is something missing.  Beyond our sandy yard, beyond the Welcome to Joshua Tree sign, beyond the glow of Palm Springs and Los Angeles…something is dreadfully missing.

The peace.  Where is the peace and love that the whole Nativity narrative implies?

It’s just not there.

[Note to my readers: The next post is very special to me.  Please take time to read and comment on it.]

 

 

 

Coal For Christmas

Paul Egan #2 copy 2

Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t thing you’re getting senile…(the doctors won’t release such information)..this is perhaps the third, maybe fourth time I’ve posted it.  Hey, maybe I’m the one getting senile.  I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  This is not a made up story by me.  It really happened.  

It’s another year and another chance for me to share this holiday memory…Happy Holidays to you all!

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sevienth year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer.  It is a time to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.  It’s time for a Christmas story.  It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good, or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.  He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the ten or so feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was half filled with chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  After glancing at each other once, they looked up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “if anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

 

[Watercolor sketches by Paul Egan. Date unknown.]

[NOTE TO MY READERS:  Today is December 20, 2017.  If you enjoyed this post (again) please keep an eye out for a special blog that will be out just after Christmas.  You’ll know how special it is to me when you read it.  Have a happy holiday…whatever you celebrate.]

The Day Bob Dylan Dies

[Source: Google search.]

This is not an obituary.  It’s not a eulogy.  It’s a foreshowding.

I’m a sensitive guy.  I’m seventy years old and I cry at the final scene of Casablanca, several times during Dr. Zhivago, and at the end of Sleepless in Seattle.

I make no apologies.

But, lately, my generation (mostly the Boomers)  have lost more than our fair share of rock stars (or musical artists, if you prefer).  Music defined the Boomers.  We grew up with the Beatles.  Yet, years ago we lost George Harrison, John Lennon.  More recently,  David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Fats Domino…and more than I can remember or even want to think about because it saddens me so much.

I’ve seen him in concert, perhaps twenty times, and even if the show seemed “phoned in”, I still walked away from the theater or the arena with a deep respect.  Respect for a man who is spending his later years on a “never-ending tour”.  According to BobDylan.com, he has sang Like a Rolling Stone well over 2,000 times!

But, there is a date, as yet to be determined by the gods, when my ultimate favorite poet/rock star and Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan will join his comrades.

Dylan (as of this writing on December 10, 2017) is seventy-six years old.  His death could come in three days, seven months, nine years…but the way our musical icons are leaving us so fast, I am dreading the day when Dylan’s number comes up.

Some morning I will wake up and read on the front page of the New York Times that he had died.  Some people who don’t know how valued this poet is to me will not understand why I will cry.

I guarantee that I will cry,  I will weep.  I will sob.  I will mourn.

My sadness will be blowing in the wind.

 

Love At The End Of The Tunnel

[My photo. Elias leaves pre-K.]

The longest and most uncomfortable, painful and seemingly endless flight I ever undertook began at 4:00 am on Monday, November 20 when I forced myself out of the bed.  I forgot our wakeup call was for 4:15 am.  Our flight was scheduled for 7:00 am.  It was going to be a long day.

We were at a lower level Marriott about two miles from Logan Airport.  Our shuttle picked us up at 5:00 am, on time and the driver was even awake and courteous.  I was numb with lack of sleep.

The first leg of our flight required a stop-over in Chicago.  Time to breathe real air and stretch our legs for an hour.

Then we boarded American Airlines flight #1239 for Seattle.  I bought one of those neck pillows but it did nothing but keep me upright with my head forced into one position, much like you see in the photos of the poor souls in the electric chair..  Everything in my body hurt when we finally landed.

We were on the first segment of our winter vacation.  First stop was to visit and spend Thanksgiving with my daughter, Erin, husband Bob and, my one and only grandson, Elias.

From their home in Orting in Washington, we were due to fly to LA and then spend the month in Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert of California.

But, I digress.

We called Erin who was waiting in the cellphone lot.  Within a few minutes, she pulled up in front Pick-up Station #1.

We loaded her 2013 Hyundai Accent.  We drove south for about forty-five minutes and we were at her home in Orting.

I had been awake since 4:00 am and was drugged with Valium and Dramamine so I was grateful when every one else left to do some shopping, I drifted on the sofa, the large black cat, Guinness, sleeping on my lap.

Everyone returned from shopping.

Then the real fun began…Elias began to remember his grandpa and Emmy.

It seemed to me to be the longest and most painful flight I’ve ever made.  But the love at the end…made it all disappear.

[My photo]

Postscript: Guest proofreader for this post is my daughter, Erin.]

The Quiet Feast/The Great Cycle

I felt the breeze…

I stumbled on a tree root when…

Finally, we reached the pond…

Concentrate.  Start over.

When I was a teacher I was often given the dubious privilege of  “lunch duty”.  A room, nearly the size of a gym, filled with 5th & 6th graders…or 9th & 10th graders, and a hand full of teachers produced a noise level that made it impossible to carry on a conversation or to even think about the hour before you.  Sometimes on days when I didn’t have duty, I would retreat to the faculty lunch room.  Even there, teachers talked about the students, the administration or their Valium prescription.  Still, no time to think.

As a last resort, I would take my tray to my empty home room and eat alone.  It occurred to me that I would appear antisocial…but at least I could think.

Once, perhaps a decade or so ago, I found a guidebook to monasteries, close to our home in Manhattan, that opened their doors to travelers…like a B & B with stained glass.  Mariam and I found one, run by the Episcopal church, on the western side of the Hudson River.  It was a large estate-like building that sat high above the river in the Hudson Highlands.  It happened that we booked our room on a “quiet” weekend.

No talking allowed.

During the meals, all I could hear was the clinking of forks and spoons on the china plates.  A whisper here and there…but otherwise, silence.

I could think.

A year ago, in October, along with our great friends, D’Arcy and Judy,  Mariam and I took a walk along the Silver Lake Bog trail.  The sky was azure.  The foliage was at a peak.  Brilliant reds, yellows, copper and scarlet leaves mixed with the green conifers.

I hung back and walked alone.  I stopped to listen.  The gently falling leaves sounded like a light rain.  I looked around me and realized that I had walked into a grand feast, a forested restaurant, a silent meal.

Nearly everything I looked at was in the process of dying…or already dead.  What was alive was consuming what was dead.  This was considered to be a fairly dry summer, but you would never have guessed that from that bog or our front yard.  My copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms was used more than the previous decade.

It was like watching “The Walking Dead” with the roles reversed.  Of course I have lived a life-time of seeing this every autumn, but on that day, the Big Picture came into focus more clearly and gave me the urge to put all this into words.  I was a witness to the Great Cycle of Life.  I know it’s a cliché, but there it was, all around me.  The ground itself was covered by a blanket of moss and lichen that were feeding and consuming the organic material.  The dead logs, many cleared from the trail by a chainsaw, were helpless to resist the countless fungi, moss, bacteria and water that was breaking a once tall and stately beech or maple or oak into mere molecules.

And, all this was done in total silence and  would continue even under three feet of snow and ice and temperatures of -37 degrees.

In six months, a small spore, a seed, a dormant larvae of a black fly would begin to revive and then bloom and the green would return.

And, that fly would find out where I lived.

 

 

Fathers and Coffee

One more cup of coffee before I go…

                               –Bob Dylan

[My photo]

This gray, almost monochromatic morning, I lounged in bed reading yesterday’s New York Times.  It’s something we did every weekend for years while we lived in Manhattan.  The fact that’s its Monday is a moot point.  When you’re retired, everyday is like a Sunday.  This may, however, be due to the fact that all the days seem to drift together and half the time I’m never totally sure what day it is.

But, to clear away any misgivings, I can state that it is Monday, November 6…and it’s gloomy outside, like a Tim Burton take on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But, I digress.

I was sipping my coffee, once steaming and now, just below the stage of lukewarm.  It tastes just like it sounds, lukewarm coffee, barely potable.  The odd thing is that if I drop in two ice cubes and wait three minutes, it’s transformed into Iced Coffee!  And, it’ll be a cold day in Yuma before I’ll walk away from a Starbucks Cold Brew.

So, as I sipped the cooling mug, I began to recollect on things my father said to me when I was growing up in the 1950’s.  I’m sure he was not alone in using phrases like:

“If I wanted a fool to do this, I would have done it myself.”

“Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Post-war idioms.

I was strictly a tea drinker well into my teens.  It was mostly a camping thing.  I never had a Lipton before scurrying off to elementary school.  In fact, I was never really that big on caffeine ever, even now.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a mug of Irish Breakfast tea now and then.

I’m recalling an incident that occurred when I was about fifteen.  My family was sitting at a diner and the waitress asked about drinks.  I asked for my first cup of coffee.  My father looked aghast at me.  He shifted his position on the vinyl seat of the booth.  When the server left, he leaned over to me and actually said:

“You know, it’ll stunt your growth”.

It was a cliché that every parent used to threaten their kids about; coffee, tobacco and so many other vices.

I lay in bed and chuckled to myself.  How antiquated, how naive his threats seem to me now.  Then the smile left my face and I felt an overwhelming sadness wash over me.

I thought of my own son and how, because of a divorce, I did not take part in his life when he had his first coffee.  The sadness deepened.  I had missed so many of the years when I, as his father, should have been by his side.

My father’s remark came back to me with a new kind of understanding.  I really don’t believe he truly thought that my first cup of coffee was going to stunt my growth.  I think he was blindsided by my request.  And, most importantly, I think he was terrified.  In a certain way, that first coffee was a sort of rite of passage…something he knew deep within and something he dreaded with great sorrow.

He was losing his son, his youngest son to the terrors of a fast approaching place called adulthood.  His comment was the only thing he could think of to slow down the separation that was to come.  He wanted to hold on to my childhood as long as he could, because after that, there’s no going back, no reversal in time and no going home again.

The separation of father and son.

When my umbilical cord was cut sometime during the evening of May 31, 1947, I was separated physically from my mother.  No such action happens between father and son…until the son asks for his first cup of coffee.

I cling to my son these days.  I kiss his cheek when I see him.  I tell him how much I love him.  I wish I had to lean over, sore back or not, to pick him up.  I wish I had to walk at a tilt while I held his little hand in mine.  I wish he had to lift his head upward to look at me and to extend his arms, asking to be picked up and carried.

Everyday, I can feel the fear my father felt that afternoon, decades ago, when I said yes to a cup of coffee.

[Photo credit: Keith Daniel, Restitutio. Google search.]