The Ring

My left hand is ringless. The wedding band lies on a tray on the dresser in our bedroom, along with assorted jewelry.  Is this the sign of a marriage gone south?  Hardly.  The only thing that would be going south right now is my wife and I.  Because outside the wind howls and the temperature is dropping like the broken seeds of the sunflower mixture in our bird feeder.  Mariam reports from the kitchen that it is currently 14.2℉.  By 2:00 am, when I make my first trip to the bathroom (it’s a prostate thing), it’ll be -6℉.  It’ll bottom out at -12℉ in the wee hours.

So, what’s the deal with the ring?  In truth, I’m losing weight and a few weeks ago I tested the ring by lightly shaking my hand on the bed cover.  It slipped off.  I had a little clamp thing on it to keep is snug and safe on my ring finger but it broke.  For now it will rest, in security, on our dresser.

I have rarely taken it off in our 25+ years of marriage.  Why should I?  If I were out to ‘get lucky’ at the local pub…and I slid it off my finger, it would leave a white, unweathered ‘ring’ on the finger in question.  That would a dead give away for any twenty-something who had mistaken me for George Clooney (refer to my Facebook profile photo).

And I would never do such a thing anyway.  I can barely comprehend life without her.  She gets frustrated on her computer, but she’ll sit in my office for hours and we will read aloud the drafts of a novel I would be working on.  (A novel that will sell approximately 43 copies.)  Mariam will drop anything to help me with something that is beyond my ability.  She saved my life by locating the best hematologist in New York City, in 2003 when I was diagnosed with a rare leukemia.  She slept on a cot while I went through ten days of chemo.  She stayed on the phone (while she was working at Mount Sinai) for hours until we secured tickets to see the Rolling Stones.  She never denies my need to see Bob Dylan whenever he plays near us.  She lets me roam at will in a Barnes & Nobel…and even tells me which credit card to use.

[Mariam in 2017]

Twenty-two years ago, when I turned fifty, she asked me what I wanted.  I humbly suggested a 28″ sailboat or a 1952 MG TD (with wire wheels).  That’s when I think she started secretly stashing away money for one or the other.

We’ve traveled a great deal, especially since she finally retired after over fifty years in health care.  We’ve been to Paris, London, Belgium, Alaska, Istanbul, Ireland, Germany and countless other places.  And, we’re about to spend the winter in England and returning home aboard the Queen Mary 2., for the second time.

She is my wife and my best (and sometimes I feel my only) friend.

So, why this post?  Why now?  It’s not her birthday nor our anniversary.  It’s not Mother’s Day.  It’s just another day I wake next to my wife and feel that I could write a simple blog to brighten her day.  In the middle of a snowy and cold winter, she needs a lift.

After she reads this (which she will proof) I’m counting on her being a tiny bit happier.  So, now is the time to quietly mention the sailboat and the MG.

[In Istanbul. Circa: late 1990’s]

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For Me? It Was a Hard Days Night

Lennon

[Source: Google search.]

There were no classes scheduled for that Monday. It was parent/teacher conference day at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut. I was assigned to meet the parents of my students in an office close to the front entrance. I sat at the head of a large conference table made of a dark wood. Mahogany? Perhaps.

The parents were on a set schedule. I had a list of those in line waiting to discuss their sons/daughters academic performance. I didn’t have a lot to say to many of the fathers, mothers and couples that sat down, each at their appropriate time, since 99.9% of my students (grade range was from 9th to 12th) were serious about their work, were not discipline problems and were polite to me as their teacher. The most critical remark I made most of the afternoon was: “Your child needs to raise their hand more often”.

Sometime in mid-afternoon something in the air changed.

[Meanwhile, in New York City, a young man was hanging out near the entrance of the Dakota Building on Central Park West and 72nd Street.]

The door opened and a man and woman walked in and took a seat. The man’s head was covered by a fair-sized bandage. The couple held hands. The husband spoke first.

“I hate to waste your time, Mr. Egan, but I’m not really concerned very much right now about my daughter’s behavior in your class.”

I stared at him and waited.

“Four days ago I was caught in a fire at the Stouffer’s Inn where a conference for the Stouffer Company was being held. I’m sure you read about it. Twenty-six of my fellow employees were killed. I ran out of the building and into the arms of firemen. The guy behind me didn’t make it.”

I noticed the couple’s hands tightened their grip.

“I am more thankful for being alive and ready to celebrate the holidays as a family than I am about my wonderful daughter. No offense, Mr. Egan, but I have more important issues to deal with right now.”

I was speechless. “Your daughter is a great student. I’m so very sorry about…”, I couldn’t finish my sentence. The couple rose from their seats. We shook hands and they were gone. I sat in silence hoping the next set of parents would be late.

After the conferences were over, a small group of teachers gathered at the front door. Someone suggested we go to a restaurant/bar to have a drink. I followed.

We sat with our beers watching some kind of comedy show. I wasn’t laughing. Suddenly, the TV was switched off and the lights came on. The manager came out and said that the bar just received a bomb threat and that we would all have to leave.

[The guy was still standing near the main entrance of the Dakota on 72nd Street.]

Most of the teachers drove away leaving three of the science teachers in the parking lot. Two of the teachers shared a small house beside a lake just north of Ridgefield. One of them suggested that we drive to their house and have one more beer.

I remember sitting on the sofa. One of teachers was stretched out on a Lazy-Boy chair. My other friend, Jeff, was in the kitchen rummaging the fridge for two beers. The TV was on.

Whatever show was being aired, it was interrupted by a “news bulletin”. The man was standing in a Manhattan street with his hand-held microphone. What he said next made me stand up.

“Jeff,” I said, “come here quick!”

Jeff came in the room. The other teacher sat up in the Lazy-Boy.

The reporter said: “It’s official. It’s now been confirmed that John Lennon is dead. According to NYPD, he was shot by a young man who had been waiting for John and his wife Yoko Ono to arrive in their limo. All this happened just a short time ago here.” He pointed to the archway of the Dakota entrance. The camera followed his arm.

My friend Jeff visibly paled. I felt nauseous. We watched for a few minutes and I left.

Never have I felt the sorrow that hung in my heart as I slowly drove home that wretched night.

newspaper

[Source: Google search.]

 

Like Living in a Holiday Greeting Card

[Photo is mine.]

Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.

–Lyrics by Sammy Cahn

I’ve never lived inside a greeting card before. You’d have to be really really thin, like Wiley C. Cayote after being flattened by a road paver. Never fear. My readers know that and that the title of this post is metaphorical. Having said that, I will admit that I could drop a few pounds.

So, consider the lead photograph at the top of your screen. Doesn’t our house look like a Disney version of Santa’s Workshop? It looks so cozy inside and it is. Outside, it looks like a winter wonderland…snowy and frozen.

Many of my friends from back in the day will read this blog in Florida and say: “Beautiful, but no thanks.” Others may look at the picture and say: “How cozy. How peaceful.”

[My photo.]

I used to love winter when I was growing up in Owego, NY. We had a toboggan, sleds, skates and shovels to pile the snow and make a ‘snow fort’. My views have changed since 1958. Consider this:

I have to get from the front door to the car in the driveway which means I have to shovel a path, clean the snow off the car and hope the battery isn’t dead. Then I look and see that the county plow has piled the road snow at the head of the driveway. We have a guy (last name is Winter by the way) who plows our driveway but to do so properly, the car needs to be moved. Can you see a problem in this situation? I can.

Now, for reasons I won’t get into here, we have two cars. My car is in the garage. Protected. But how do I get to said garage? I have to shovel a path from our porch to the back door. I need this path because every two weeks the recycling and garbage has to be brought to the large plastic buckets in the garage. Once these are filled, I have to shovel a short path so I can haul the bins to the roadside. Mr. Winter may have had a chance to clear that space from the garage door to the road. Sometimes he doesn’t have that chance…so I have to shovel.

The other day I brought up the idea of getting a snow-blower. They cost about $700 for a proper one that ‘drives itself’. I told my wife that we’d save on Mr. Winter’s plowing. We’d have the thing paid off in two to three winters. She said we’d still have to keep him on our payroll because when we’re away for the winter, the driveway needs to be plowed. It’s an insurance thing.

“But I have a bad back,” I told my wife.

“Then I’ll shovel,” she replied.

“Not with your dicey shoulder,” I retorted.

We’re at the classic snow-blower stalemate.

[A beautiful landscape. Photo is mine.]

So, what is the situation now? Well, I need one of those patches for my lower back after I shovel even a few yards. I possess five buckets of ice-melting stuff on hand as well as three cans of de-icer, three shovels, a child’s plastic sled to haul our groceries from wherever I can park the car to the front door.

You can see the front door in the top photograph. The one that looks so cozy and inviting. But there’s not many people on our road to invite to our cozy home. They’ve all gone south for the winter. Like the hummingbirds, geese and other seventy-something-year-old folks.

We will be spending the majority of this winter in England. We have a great place to stay at the home of long-time friends. But, last year they had a freak cold snap and several inches of snow fell in North Dorset.

I wonder if I can use an English shovel. They drive on the left…maybe there’s a shoveling etiquette?

If you get a holiday card from your son or ex-wife who now live in Tucson, savor the photo of the lovely, dry, snowless desert.

[Source: The New Yorker. Dec. 10, 2018. Artist is Peter Kuper.]

Bob Takes A Bow

[Source: Google search.]

“I’ve got nothing more to live up to.”

–Dylan

This is not going to be the usual Bob Dylan fan blog. I’ve something special to relate. More on that later.

I’m sitting in what is usually the warmest room in our home, the dining room. It must be the two sets of floorboard heaters if I were asked why I’m not wearing a fleece vest while I try to put together this post. The fact that my hands are as dry as the sands of the Kalahari doesn’t make typing very easy, but if I load up on hand lotion, the keyboard can get pretty gummy, if you get my drift.

When I finish this, I’m heading downstairs to the ‘family room’ where the wood stove is located. No TV tonight. Just a time of quiet (well, maybe I’ll take Alexa with me) reading and flame watching. It’s expected to fall to 8 F later but I’ll be prepared. Unlike six nights ago when I sat in Loge 4, Row D, Seat 34 of the Beacon Theater in New York City.

I was there for what is likely my twentieth Bob Dylan concert. Most of my readers already know that I am a consummate Dylan fan. I don’t follow him around like a few friends did with the Grateful Dead…traveling from city to city. No. I catch him when he performs at a location near me.

The very best concert of his that I have ever seen was back in the day (1973 or 1974) when he was touring with The Band. They played Nassau Coliseum. It was my first big-time rock concert. He commanded the stage.

Now a days, however, he can’t fill arenas so he plays smaller venues. The Beacon Theater is a beautiful space and with a little help with a pair of opera glasses, you can see his expressions…which are few.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Bob has been criticised for his ‘lack of attention to his audience’. It’s all true. He says nothing to the crowd, only a few words to his band and then leaves to roaring applause. Some fans are annoyed by this and feel slighted. I don’t. I feel that Dylan has more than given of himself. I mean, how much energy does it take to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” for 9,700 times? I couldn’t do it.

But at the end of the show on November 29, six nights ago, he did something I had not witnessed in decades. After his last encore, before leaving the stage…Dylan stood before his band and bowed to the audience.

He’s no Mick Jagger or Tony Bennett, but considering my love for his poetry, music and his constant presence on the road (The Never Ending Tour), I’m pleased with small gestures.

Dylan doesn’t need the spotlight.

Now I have to go and start a fire.

[Photo is mine.]

 

Autumn And Gravestones

[Sitting and thinking at Forest Cemetery, St. Regis Falls, NY.]

Now that there is six inches of fresh snow on the ground and the trees are bare and the world outside our picture window is monochromatic, I can admit that I miss the late summer, the coolness of autumn days and the color of the trees.

I’ll also miss my favorite cemeteries. The best time of year to roam the country graveyards has come and gone. I’ll have to wait until mid-summer, after the mud and the bugs, until I can go “graving” again.

Does it all sound morbid to you? Too melancholy? It shouldn’t. I enjoy old cemeteries where I can learn local history and make up life stories of those who are interred beneath my feet.

And I have a perfectly good reason to wander the burying grounds. I am a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com. I get requests from people who live in places like Iowa and Nebraska asking for a photo of their grandfather’s headstone, or a memorial to an aunt’s grave they will never visit…never have a chance to leave a flower or a penny on the gravestone. They reply in emails how glad they are to have such a photo. It helps them build their family trees on Ancestry.com or some other genealogy site. Or (as they have written), share the photo with a grandchild, son, niece or spouse.

I love doing this for these people. I ask for nothing in return, except for a simple “thank you”.

Every human has a story that tells of their lives, even those who have been buried 150 years ago. I’ve stood over the graves and photographed headstones of suicides, murder victims, children who lived two days and men and women who lived to their 90+ years. I’ve wept over the graves of people whose families could only manage a hand-made headstone made of poured concrete and wrote the name and death dates with their fingers.

So many stories. So many headstones. So many epitaphs. So much grief.

But, time heals those wounds…they say.

My Father’s Books

The 1950’s & 1960’s

On Sunday nights, in the house at 420 Front Street in Owego, NY, there was usually an empty chair in our living room. My mother and three older brothers would gather around an oversized wooden console that housed a Black & White TV. The Ed Sullivan Show was about to come on the air. The diagonal screen measurement was probably about 20″, but I wouldn’t swear by that. Some memories dim with time…others stay fresh. It’s odd though. I sat and stared at this TV for years and couldn’t tell you what color the cabinet was.

But, the empty chair? Who was missing?

It was my father. Only on rare occasions did he join us for a TV show ( think he was present when Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan Show). So where was he? The answer was simple. He was upstairs. He was reading. This was not just a Sunday night activity for him…he was always upstairs (in whatever bedroom he had chosen that year for his ‘study’)…reading.

Our house was full of books. Upstairs and down, there were bookcases lined with a wide assortment of fiction and non-fiction. And almost all of it belonged to my father.

Today

We have a wonderful barrister bookcase that I brought from my family home after it was sold in 2005. It has glass windows. One sleepless night a few weeks ago, I went on the prowl for something to read. I decided to look into the bookcase at the books that we brought from my father’s library. Now I began to understand what his favorite reads were…back in the days while the rest of the family watched TV and he would retire to his comfy chair in one of the upstairs bedrooms. I began to piece together his changing tastes in literature. I determined that the oldest books dated to the 1940’s. (He bought 420 Front St. in 1945). I discovered a veritable treasure trove of pulp crime novels, early one’s written by Raymond Carver and John Dickinson Carr. There was Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene. It was next to Double Indemnity by James Cain. There were scores of these fine old pulps (even more in our bookcase downstairs).

I pulled out a copy of 5 Murderers by Raymond Chandler. I checked out the back cover. The book cost an astounding twenty-five cents! The highest price I saw on these books was fifty cents. Now, when I lived in Manhattan in the 1990’s, I used to see book vendors on the sidewalk in front of Zabar’s on Broadway. They would sell these very pulps, sealed nicely in a zip-lock baggie, for $5.00 or more. Quick math calculation: that’s a 2,000% increase. I am sitting on a goldmine!

I moved to hardcovers. There was E.M. Forester, Jack London, Robert Lewis Stevenson and so many more. Most of these were inexpensive book club editions, many had notices on the back cover to purchase war bonds.

In the upper right corner of the bookcase was a small collection of my own Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books that gave me so much joy in my pre-teen years

As my father aged, his taste in books changed. I used to see him sitting next to a stack of six or seven novels from the new releases section of the Coburn Free Library. The titles of these books, I can not recall, but I remember thinking at the time (1960’s) that this is what adults read. I wonder who the authors were. This was the days before Stephen King and John Grisham. I don’t think he’d like that genre.

My father passed away before I published my own novel. He never got to see his son’s modest success, but I’m sure he’d be proud. He tried to write a family history, but never got very far. He admitted that writing a long piece was a task beyond him.

But he sure could devour the writer’s he loved.

And he passed down his love of reading and books to all of his sons. He never pushed anything. He taught by example. I have done the same for my children. Erin and Brian are both avid readers. (Brian has been working on The Guns of August for a few years now. He has it on his Kindle. He told me once that there are about 900+ pages using the normal font. When he changes the font to a larger size, he is suddenly facing a 13,000 page book about the origins of WWI).

An indelible memory, a central, strong and clear memory of my dad is of him sitting and reading…until it was his bedtime.

He passed away at the age of 90. I’m sure he was reading when he was five or six. That’s 85 years of books. A lot of books, a lot of words and a lot of worlds to explore…for anyone.

Another Time Around

[Our front deck table.]

It all happened so fast. One minute, the flies fill the skies, the frogs croak down by the lake, the fan is kept on all night (a rare thing here in the North Country) and I spend my outdoor time swatting mosquitoes.

Tonight, we’re told of a frost warning. The fan is put away. The frogs are sitting out the cold weather deep in the mud. Our first frost, a few weeks ago, took care of the insects. I still find myself brushing away the spider nests, but their time will be over soon.

It’s about two weeks since the equinox. The first days of autumn are heavy upon us. The recent ceaseless rain has brought on some spectacular bursts of reds, yellows and scarlets among the deciduous trees. It’s the time of death and decay.

Or is it?

As I sit on the sofa and look out at the falling leaves, I’m remembering a very old Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown’s concern about that one last leaf that clung to a branch. I’m remembering the O. Henry short story, The Last Leaf…a deathly sick young woman lies on what may be her deathbed. The doctor tells her friend that she will…unless she had something to live for. The sick woman is watching the last leaf on a tree in the garden of her New York apartment. Her friend senses that the woman will die when the last leaf falls. The friend commissions an old artist gentleman to paint the leaf on the outside of her window. The last leaf never falls…the young woman lives.

It’s a melancholy story, but so is autumn, in a way.

[Beside our front walk.]

I took a walk around our property this afternoon. I noticed something that came as no surprise. It happens every year at this time, but it still takes you by surprise. When you think all is dying and rotting, you see new growth. Yes, something new is pushing through the wet soil like the crocus of April and the daffodils of May.

The fungi have taken over our lawn like daisies in June. They bring color to a darkening landscape. There, amid the fallen red leaves are white, brown and yellow mushrooms, not seeking sunlight so much (they’re not so big on photosynthesis), but are finding their food in the decaying leaves.

Soon, the first snows of November will put an end to much of we see.

But, rest assured that under the three feet of snow and the sub-zero temperatures, life goes on. The mice have tunnels, the future insects that will plague me next summer are holding out under the tree bark or in the mud of Rainbow Lake.

The frogs will be there too.

[All photos are mine.]