Site Updates

roadishI have been very slow blogging lately. I started a piece that only is getting longer and longer, which means it is terrible and unlikely to ever see the light of day.

In the meantime, I find myself looking for new work, as I am leaving the MIT Press after a great 5.5 years as Director of Technology. It’s likely I will do some consulting as I conduct the job search (and feel free to contact me on either front!).

I added a working copy of my resume and began the somewhat tedious process of compiling a list of my publications (that probably sounds boastful, but the key word is “tedious” and not “publications”). I had my first magazine byline in or around 1984. I am not sure I even have a print copy of that anymore. It is interesting that some publications have essentially no digital archive outside of the library systems such as EBSCOhost. I was delighted to find others that have excellent ones but that only go back so far. I will keep working on it. Parts of it are fun–I forgot some things that I wrote even in the not-too-distant past.

Short Story: “Rink”

rink pictureWhen I was growing up, Bobby Orr joined the Bruins and Boston quadrupled down on being a hockey town. Even when the Bruins were bad in the early 1960s, they filled the Boston Garden while the Celtics couldn’t get a sellout despite winning 11 championships in 13 years.

Orr was a revolution. He took over the offense of every game he was in despite playing as a defense man. This was unheard of at the time, and the accomplishments would grown outsized. In his fourth season, he scored 126 points to lead the league in scoring, nearly doubling his old mark of most points by a defense man of 64 set the year before. Many experts still consider it the greatest single season by a hockey player. I was 11 years old. Along with thousand of boys in Greater Boston, I laced on skates and for the next seven years I played some of the most enthusiastic D+ hockey the world has seen. I was that bad but I loved it that much.

I have written several short pieces about my own experience with hockey, one of which I would like to try at one of the local Moth events. I have a few ideas for longer-form pieces, in part because I love the topic but also because I think, of the four major sports, hockey seems to have disproportionately little written about it.

All that said, I hadn’t tried fiction yet until I wrote “Rink,” which was just published at The Quill Magazine. My thanks to Colleen Conerz for the thoughtful edits and for publishing the piece. It is entirely fiction. The protagonist and the other characters all know how to actually play.

The tennis courts had been flooded for a month, but it only turned cold enough for ice on Christmas. So, when Davey McCabe finished his paper route the next day, he put on his equipment and walked over. He heard the boys from the high school team before he saw them. There were six of them with sticks and pucks. Freddie Brown was out there, flying around the ice, pushing the puck just in front of him, then blasting a slap shot off the chain link fence. Davey watched Freddie collect the puck, skate in a low circle, pivot and skate in another low circle, then shoot off the fence again.

There were nine of the older boys now, and Davey recognized them all. Jimmy Martin and his twin brother Johnny. They were on defense and seemed to never let up a goal. Pete McCann was out there. He was chasing Freddy all over the ice but couldn’t get the puck off his stick. Pucks were everywhere. Guys were going full speed down the ice and letting slap shots go. Davey watched one puck get lodged in the chain link. He couldn’t imagine shooting a puck that hard.

Read the rest here.

 

Alas, Trump

trumpfSince election day, watching the results roll in, I have been alternatively rattled, angry, depressed, shocked, and terrified. I had been confident Clinton would win, that she would get two or even three supreme court picks, and that I could live the last decade or two or three of my life knowing America would not go very wrong. I could spend my energies with work, with family, and with writing–inside this office, inside these stories–and not despair for the world.

But I do despair for the world.

I keep thinking I should write about Trump–the angry man-child, the rube, the blustering failure, the racist and the misogynist–but, really, what hasn’t been written already? I don’t have a platform and, really, who cares what I think?

But I will say this, and it’s a point that matters profoundly to me and doesn’t seem to matter to most people or at all to Trump’s supporters. I can say without hesitation that every single person in my life–every friend, every colleague, every person I know through church and everywhere else–is thousands of times the person that Trump is. Each one is smarter, more accomplished, kinder, better spoken, and more knowledgeable of the world and its people. Each one is more temperate and more courageous. If I listed every personal characteristic of every single person I know against Trump’s, I wouldn’t find a single one of them lacking in any way. In fact, it wouldn’t even be close in any single category.

It’s really that simple and I don’t understand why any Trump voter sees it differently. You can agree with his policies but don’t tell me he is a good person. Just don’t.

Don’t tell me he is successful. I suspect he is in debt for hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. Even if he has appreciable net worth, it’s probably south or not much north of the millions of dollars he inherited.

Don’t tell me he’s “tough.” He had exactly one chance to prove he was courageous when he should have served in Vietnam and took the rich boy’s way out instead. (In case you were wondering, while rich boy cowards like Trump were avoiding service, men of color were dying at alarming rates instead, and the deferments Trump used were eliminated in part to make things at least a little bit fair.)

Don’t tell me he’s good to his family. If he lives much longer I am sure he will move on to his fourth and maybe fifth wife.

And dear God, don’t bring up the perfectly insane idea that he is sacrificing things to help the country. He has grifts on top of grifts.

I am a Democrat but I can separate the person from the policies. I didn’t hold any of these feelings for Reagan or either of the Bushes. I believe they were and are decent people who believed differently from me or were acting on the interests of people who believe differently from me. I believe that George H. W. Bush is a finer person than Bill Clinton, but I also believe that Barack Obama is a finer person than every president since Carter. I thought Jerry Ford was overmatched by the job and never should have pardoned Nixon, but I also believe he was a good person and a very good father and husband.

(Also by the way, if you loathe George W. Bush but want to see him being visited by moments of grace, read this.)

If you are a Trump supporter and you are reading this, I am guessing you are fulminating over the idea that Barack Obama is a good person. Before you vomit into my comments, I ask that you perform a simple test. Answer honestly the following question: how would you have reacted if Barack Obama said the things that Trump said about grabbing women by the pussy? I mean it. Answer the question honestly.

(And if you are a Trump supporter and are ready to hurl “Bill Clinton” at me, I judge him just as harshly for avoiding Vietnam and for his attitudes toward women, but Trump’s failings only start there and go on for miles. Trust me. I could do this all day.)

I know I am pissing into the wind. Millions of people support him and maybe only a few dozen read this blog. Still, I have to say it.

 

Prompts

unnamed (1)I led a writing workshop last week at Ferry Beach in Saco, Maine. I love part of the description on their website, in which it said that writers would be “telling the stories of (their lives)–in a circle of soulful smiling and laughing raving big-hearts.” It was so true. Big hearts indeed.

This is my third year in a row, and fourth year overall, leading the workshop. We had more than 20 people each day, and the format is both simple and profound. We sit in a covered pavilion on the edge of the woods with coffee, notepads, and computers in hand. I read one poem of reflection, then one poem as a prompt, and we write.

I based the prompts on a general theme. Last year it was generosity, in part based on the idea that writing itself is an act of generosity. The former coordinator, Jim Ellefson, made this point often, sometimes with the admonition from Tim O’Brien and The Things They Carried: “But this too is true: stories can save us.” They can. They do.

This year’s theme was an answer to last year’s: gratitude. I started the week with a delightful poem by Alice N. Persons, “Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man.” Among many things, the poem is a celebration of the everyday, the small delights that arrive and need to be called out:

“you bring me all the things I order
are never in a bad mood
always have a jaunty wave as you drive away
look good in your brown shorts
we have an ideal uncomplicated relationship”
you’re like a cute boyfriend with great legs

(I have never met Alice Persons, but if I weren’t a married man I would apply to be her UPS driver. For now I will just have to read more of her poems here and in the book I bought here.)

The prompt from that poem was, “What small things move you?” I gave them five minutes. They were, as the saying goes, off to the races. (For our always-optional homework that evening I suggested “first crush” as one of several topics. My goodness did a couple of people nail that one.)

All week people produced one fine piece of writing after another. I fretted about the size of the group, if everyone would have enough time to share, if the reading on Thursday night would come together well. I haven’t read the evaluations yet, but it did seem to go even better than I could have hoped. People shared and people listened with warmth and appreciation. We did indeed have soulful smiling and laughs. The big-hearts filled the pavilion and won the week.

We had perhaps forty people attend the reading. It is the best audience you could imagine for a reading–a sea of intelligent, smiling faces, laughing at the right time, nodding in appreciation throughout, offering warm applause at every turn. I had the best seat in the house. I could see each person up close as they read. They were prepared, their pieces edited and timed, their presence in front of the microphone assured. They also channeled something they knew already but perhaps needed to hear one more time from me: a little adrenaline is a good thing. If the great Bill Russell could throw up before every game on his way to 11 NBA championships, they could welcome some butterflies and a dry mouth.

After the Thursday night reading, the final session on Friday morning is always happily quieter. We do another prompt, share some of what we’ve read, and talk about the year in front of us. We try each year to keep it going but we always have to admit that it’s not easy. We return to life–to work and homes and children and school and aging parents. Our plan this year is to produce an online journal or collection from what we have written. The young woman spearheading that effort has the energy and the drive, and I think it’s kind of cool that she will be doing it from her new home in Amsterdam. An international literary journal. We deserve no less.

For a final prompt I chose a favorite poem, “This Couple,” from the wonderful Arkansas poet C. D. Wright who passed in 2016. Just as Persons did in her poem about her UPS man, Wright uses the everyday to celebrate life, but instead of highlighting a fanciful moment, she creates an ode to a long and sustained relationship. We see the couple in scene after scene, dotted with rain, full of the mundane (“pay toilets where we sat without paper” and “our heads resting against an elevator wall inhaling a stranger”).

Any one of these images could be prompt, but I chose, “Cafes where we ate late and once only.” People leaned into their notepads and their notebook computers and cranked away. I only gave them seven minutes, but they hit it out of the ballpark once again. People took us to every corner of the country and every kind of cafe. The pancakes were good or terrible, the pies runny or perfect, the waitresses bored or friendly. We paused before taking our morning break and I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell them of the last gifts they had just given to each other but I could feel my throat tighten and my eyes sting. I couldn’t get it out. I hope they know it, though. I hope they know what a gift it is to share like that: what a gift it is for each of them and for me.

This I Believe

croppedImg_15853487I have been a Unitarian Universalist for 25 years. It wasn’t the faith I was born into–that was Catholicism–but it was the faith I chose. If you asked me why I chose it and why I have stayed with it, you would need to prepare yourself for a very long answer. That said, I will speak briefly to the congregation today as part of an informal series we have had, modeled along the This I Believe public dialogue about faith.

 

 

This I Believe

At the very end of my mother’s life, I went to see her in the nursing home. It was a Saturday and my brother called to say to say I should get there as soon as I could. I sat at her bedside, held her hand, and prayed.  It was the only thing to do.

I hadn’t been a Catholic for 30 years but my mother still was, so I reached deep in my memory and prayed what I could remember of the rosary. I could only produce the children’s version—an “Our Father” followed by three “Hail Mary’s.” I repeated this a few times, trying for the depth of faith I once possessed.

It wasn’t quite there.

At some point I tuned into the sounds of the nursing home. Aides were stopping by rooms, small conversations were happening, and in the big room down the hall they were playing bingo. A woman called out “G-55” and then “O-70.” I studied my mother’s face, stared out the window for a while.

Then I heard the woman again, “B-13. B-13.” There was a long pause and then a sigh, “I’ve called all the B’s and all the G’s. Someone has to have won.”

 

It’s OK to laugh a little. My mother would have. While she was always the quietest in a room of mixed company, she possessed an Irish wit that could be biting—and she hated bingo.

 

I sat for a while more and then decided to leave in time for the Saturday evening Catholic mass. I would come back the next day.

Except for weddings and funerals I hadn’t been to a Catholic mass since I was 14. Still, 30 years later, I remembered every word of it, even the Nicene creed. This Unitarian-Universalist chimed right in, “I believe in one God // the Father almighty // maker of heaven and earth..”

But it was reflex. This wasn’t my church; it was my mother’s, and I was there for her.

I drove home. My brother had called again. My mother had passed away while I had prayed in her church.

 

The Christian idea of Grace, as my mother explained to me, is God’s love and forgiveness, given to us in moments we need it most. I hope it came to my mom while I sat in her church that afternoon. My mother believed but had her doubts, so I hope she **knew** she was entering the Kingdom of Heaven as she slipped away.

I do know grace came to me during that bingo game. I needed that reminder of my mother, of her wit, of what she had been like before that illness took her body and mind. I don’t know if God herself is there to grant me grace, but I know grace is there. I waver between hopeful agnostic and minor-league Christian, but those moments of love come to me.

I find moments of grace here, in this church. They are there for me lately in coffee hour with a warm handshake from an old friend I haven’t seen much in my sabbatical from church. They are there for me when I see a teenager in coffee hour and see the four-year old version of them from our preschool classroom. They are there for me when Reverend Anita ends each service by urging us to go into the week with “fresh courage.”

 

When I was a boy and I would go to church with my mother, I would listen to her sing the hymns. She wasn’t much of a singer in the same way she wasn’t much of a talker but she had a pretty soprano voice and she made even the most dismal Catholic hymn sound good. My mother didn’t have an easy life. She was a single mom, working and raising four children on her own. Church was probably the only respite in her week and those hymns were probably her only refuge.

Which leads me to another thing I believe. I believe in beauty. I believe that even though bad things happen—in the world, in our lives, to the people we lost, to my mother—our lives are interrupted by moments of beauty. We all find it at times, don’t we? Maybe it’s in poetry. In something we read or watch. In something we’ve made. In nature.

For me it’s the choir and my small part in it. I took a five-year sabbatical from church but I took a 20-year sabbatical from the choir. So I am back in it, groping my way through. I sing baritone so I put myself strategically between Jeff Morrison and John Pustell, two stalwarts with fine voices who know what they are doing. I am at my best when I quiet myself, listen, and put myself in tune with them. When I told Jeff how much I rely on them he quipped, “It’s like bowling with bumpers.”

I am going to let you in on something even though it embarrasses me. There are times when I am so full of emotion up there I can hardly sing. If you look closely, I am sometimes crying. This usually happens at a point in the song when I am soldiering through my baritone part and those beautiful soprano voices around me take flight.

I grew up in a massive Catholic church, easily five times the size of this sanctuary, with stained glass and holy water, confessionals and kneelers and incense–and Christ on the Cross, in bold relief, towering almost 30 feet above the altar.

We have no such ornamentation here. We don’t, as the Catholics do, consider our sanctuary a doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven. But this place fills my heart more than that massive church ever did. This is the place where I find those moments of grace and beauty.

This I believe.

Short Story: “Airport Run”

penny_shorts_full_logo_500My short story, “Airport Run” has been published in the online journal, Penny Shorts. I’ve mentioned elsewhere about all the rejections I got before I got any acceptances. It has been a strange run, though not unexpected. Publishing is full of rejections. After going 0-97 I suddenly went three for five–a great day at the play for anyone.

I have 20 stories that I consider complete, nineteen of which I have been submitting. I have two more that are close to complete, then maybe two more that have some early promise. I consider two of the three to be published–this one and “What You Can Do” to be pretty dark. Among the other stories I really like so far, these two are probably the darkest, at least in content if not in tone. The third one is different.

I am not sure what that means but for now I am going with it. It’s nice to be out there.

Searching Again and Landing in Sugar Hill

sugar-hillI’ve discussed internet research before and, in particular, searching. I am 20 something years into using the Web, several years more into availing myself of Usenet, and a few more years beyond that into using electronic bulletin boards–oh the warm, sweet sounds of a modem, no matter how slow, chattering and finally connecting. (Oh, and a side note, some people conflate “the internet”,  and “the web,” but the distinction is both correct and useful.) Anyway, I should be jaded but I still marvel what is out there, a few keystrokes away.

Just to establish my bona fides in the physical world, though, let it be known that I have been doing some research offline lately as well. I have picked up a few of these things called “books.” I even took one out of the library using this miraculous, interstellar-like thing called “inter-library loan” (look it up sometime, it’s kind of amazing).

Still, I am amazed at the knowledge at my fingertips and how I can think of something, type it in, and read about. So as I worked on a short story recently, I found my way to:

  • Cerebral spinal rhinorrhoea
  • Arch (adjective)
  • River bank
  • Ice floe (after typing it as “ice foe,” perhaps a more interesting idea)
  • Hell is other people
  • Opposite of furtive
  • Famous crooked noses
  • Sugar Hill NYC
  • Man’s inhumanity to man (see “hell is other people,” above)
  • Jokes stinking drunk

I should weave my research history in more with the actual drafts of my writing–perhaps I can create a version of the story with the research threads I followed. I used much of what I looked up in the draft of the story, though Sugar Hill was left on the cutting room floor. “Hell is other people” and “man’s inhumanity to man” must have been more about my mood than the story. Indeed my character does break his nose (well, someone break it for him) and he ends up near an icy river (OK, enough with the spoilers!).

As everyone knows, there can be a serendipity in search. So when I imagined my character as a law student at Columbia, I decided his budget would put him well up in Harlem when Harlem was affordable. So as I searched for neighborhoods in and north of Harlem I found Sugar Hill. I knew a little about Sugar Hill because of the talents of Nick Bloom, the son of my friends John Bloom and Amy Farrell. Nick was in a writing workshop I taught, had been living in Sugar Hill, and wrote a song–a sweet farewell to the neighborhood he had lived in before moving to Austin for graduate school.

When Nick played the song to the workshop, it took all my composure to not fall to pieces. It was the first time someone wrote a song in a workshop I taught and it’s a wonderful song. It was a gift to us all, but whether Nick intended it this way or not, it was a special gift to me. My brothers had both gone to Columbia and my oldest brother had gone to the law school as well. I visited him there often, and he’s been out of NYC for decades but that part of the city still holds a special place for me, all the more so because we have been estranged for almost as long. When he left New York City, a small part of me left with him. I’ve been there at least 100 times since and I love the city but it’s never quite been the same.

Ultimately, because the character’s place in the world wasn’t central to the story, I decided, at least at this point, to leave Sugar Hill out and save it for another day. Perhaps I don’t know enough about it, or perhaps it deserves more than a passing reference. I saved the paragraph I wrote. Who knows? It could turn into something.