The stairway going up to the dance studio smelled like someone had been smoking. That unmistakable stale trace of nicotine hanging in the air. Much to my relief the smell dissipated when we got to the top of the stair and walked into the large bright classroom.

We did our usual exercises. It’s a new session, so most of the exercises involved stretching at the bar. We moved on to some basic movements and combinations. By the time we progressed to the floor exercises, we were an hour into the hour and a half lesson. We did the first floor exercises, some simple jumping, Échappés.

That’s when Darren decided he’d had enough. He walked to the corner of the studio where his jacket hung on the back of a chair, put it on and then sat to change his shoes.

“Are you leaving us?” our instructor asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got to go to work early, and if I keep this up I’m not going to have anything left in my legs.”

He was sweating and winded. His face had a pained, pallid look to it.

“Ok,” our instructor said. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” he said again. “I’ll be fine.”

He left the studio and thumped back down the stairs.

The rest of us finished the class. A few more floor exercises and then some waltz steps. Twenty minutes later we emerged from the community center. I felt well-stretched, endorphins still pumping enough that my fingers and toes tingled that “you’ve had a good workout” tingle.

Across the street Darren was still waiting for his ride for work. He was sitting at a picnic table in the park, smoking a cigarette.

Life at Age 12

I grew up in the big brick house on ridge road.

Canton, OH. 1980. I am 12 years old.

The house has four stories. When we moved in it was a two-story house, just upstairs and downstairs. By the time I’m 12 my parents have turned the attic into a huge bedroom suite where my two brothers and I shared a large sleep-and-play area, a bathroom and a storage room. (The storage room was where I would later be held for 15 seconds at gunpoint by Marilyn Manson, but that’s another story for another post.) They’d also turned the basement into a rec room, laundry and half bath.

My sister, Emily, and my parents had rooms on the second (originally, upstairs) floor. The second floor also had a guest room where for a while my Aunt Emily roomed with us.

When Auntie Em moved it started an ongoing discussion of how we would distinguish the Emilys. There was one camp that thought that Auntie Em should be B.Em, Big Emily, and sister Emily should be L.Em, Little Emily. Auntie Em proposed the opposite. L.Em, she contended, should stand for Large Emily and B.Em should stand for Baby Emily. The discussion continues at family gatherings to this day. We’ll see if it changes now that sister Emily has a baby of her own.

The main floor, or downstairs, was where all the action happened. Downstairs had four rooms. The kitchen with its attached breakfast nook tended to be the center of family life in the first part of the day. After school most of the family’s activity moved to the living room, except at dinnertime. Dinnertime was always in the dining room. Everyone was required to be present. There was also a TV room off the end of the living room. The TV room was also called the cold room because it didn’t have any heat in winter. We were only allowed one hour of TV a day.

My parents still live in the big brick house on Ridge Road. My father once said the only way he would ever leave there is in a box. I’m pretty sure he still feels that way.

Lots of changes have come and gone since 1980. The neighborhood used to be full of kids, and now is full of senior citizens. The city has declared it part of a “safety corredor” meaning, I think, that it’s a high-crime area. I suppose it’s been that way ever since Marilyn Manson broke in, come to think of it. There’s a neighborhood association now. They have block captains and that sort of thing. They’ve put American flags up on all the streetlights.

That’s where I lived when I was 12. I was awkward, geeky, Dungeons & Dragons playing seventh grader with an attitude, mother, father, two brothers, a sister, a live-in spinster-librarian aunt and a cat.

Those were the days.

Losing Faith (Part 2 of 3)

Part 1 | Part 3

Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) made a good case for most people not really believing what they say they believe. He told a parable about a church of ducks. Paraphrased, the story goes something like this:

One morning the ducks all gathered at the duck church. The sermon was about how God had given them wings to fly. Because of this great gift, ducks could soar to great heights and travel great distances. From those heights, the ducks could see the vastness and beauty of the earth God had made for the ducks to live in.

Quacks of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” reverberated around the duck sanctuary.

Then the ducks all waddled home again.

In that sense, sometimes “losing faith” is growing into an ability to be honest about the extent of disbelief that’s been present all along. It’s not really losing faith so much as finding something better.

I remember trying to walk on water one summer afternoon at the Burshire swimming pool. I’d been to a couple days of vacation Bible school earlier that summer, and they’d told the story of Jesus walking on the water, and calling Peter to walk on the water with him.

(For those unfamiliar with the story, the disciples are in a boat on a stormy sea, and Jesus comes to them walking across the water. When the disciples don’t believe it really is Jesus, he calls Peter to come out on the water with him. At first Peter does walk on the water, but then begins to sink when he realizes the impossibility of what he’s doing.)

I wanted to test it out. If Jesus could do it, and if Peter could do it, I ought to be able to do it. The Bible school teacher had said anybody could if they really believed enough. I was skeptical. But here was a fine opportunity for the experiment. I closed my eyes, ratcheted up as much “I believe, I believe, I believe” as I could muster, and stepped off the side of the pool deck.

Down I went. That was the nail in the coffin of naïve belief for me.

The gospel story about Jesus and Peter walking on the water isn’t really about walking on water. Not in the way the fundamentalists at vacation Bible school described it.

The gospel story is about what happens when you leave the safety of the boat (a symbol of the established patterns of faith — the church) to walk on your own out on the sea (a symbol of chaos and danger). The question the story asks isn’t whether you can believe or do the impossible, but whether you can live in a universe without the artificial constructions of religiosity.

Ironic then, that most of the time you hear the story (as I heard it in vacation Bible school that summer) it’s told in order to reinforce the necessity of the artificial construction.

Boat on the water with words, "Dear Lord be good to me the sea is so wide and my boat is so small."The logo of the Children’s Defense Fund is a boat on the water, with words written in a child’s hand, “Dear Lord be good to me the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.”

It’s a good prayer, not just for children but for anyone who has come to realize that the sea is much wider than the boat any of us is in. That realization, if it’s more than ducks quacking their amens, ought to invoke compassion for those who are at the mercy of forces beyond their understanding, let alone control.

Given the vast disparity between the size of our boat and the universe it’s obvious that the boat doesn’t stand a chance. No more chance than of me walking across the swimming pool. Losing faith in the boat is one of the best things I ever did.

I still go back to the boat once in a while. I have lots of friends on the boat. The difference is I no longer regard the boat as protection from the sea.

And if I don’t like the direction the boat is heading, I can always get out and walk across the universe.

Part 1 | Part 3

Go To WordCamp, Sleep Better

I’m at WordCamp Providence today.

I’m learning all kinds of cool stuff. Geek stuff. Maybe I’ll write about it more on iCaspar sometime.

But at one session I learned about sleep science.

Why and how did I learn about sleep at a computer geek conference?

This guy, Clint Warren was talking about all the projects he’s involved with. It seemed like an awful lot of stuff.

I asked him if he ever turns projects down. He said he’s always pushing himself to do more, but that he functions better and can get more done by making sure that he eats right and gets enough sleep.

He sleeps using a sleep induction mat.

I’d never heard of such a thing. I looked it up.

One thing led to another. I’m going to order one of those things.

Short story. Go to WordCamp. Sleep better.

Maybe after I get my sleep induction mat and try it out for a while I’ll let you know how it goes.

Pizza and Soda-Pop

Pizza night was a random occurrence back in the day.

My best guess is it fell on whatever night Mom was too tired to cook, but you’d have to ask her. Maybe she’ll leave a comment saying how she remembers it. Maybe not.

For whatever unfathomable-to-children reason the grown-ups declared pizza night, it was for us (well, at least for me) a special occasion, not so much for the pizza as for the soda. In Ohio, they call it pop. Whatever.

(I’d completely forgotten about the soda – pop thing until I was back for a visit a year ago and one of my nephews asked me at the family picnic if I wanted a pop. It took me a second to figure out what he was talking about, during which time he was looking at me as if I were as dumb as a post. I must have been the first person he’d ever run into who didn’t know what pop was.)

We rarely had soda-pop. We had it on the few occasions when we were at McDonalds (mostly on road trips), and on pizza night. That was it. Until we got older and could go out and get it for ourselves.

Mom would phone the pizza order in to Robin’s Pizza Nest. It was a little place an old guy — maybe he wasn’t so old, but he seemed old to the 7-year-old me — who had converted the back room of his house over on Cleveland Avenue into a pizza kitchen. He had a pizza oven, a refrigerator and a counter with an old National cash register at one end. That was it. There was barely enough room to turn around in there.

Robin didn’t sell soda-pop. Just pizza. So we picked it up at the Spee-D-Foods on the way over. It was always Coke, Pepsi or 7-Up. Uncle John used to like Dr. Pepper, but other than those three kinds we didn’t know any other kind of soda-pop existed back then. Well, Tab, I guess. If you can call that soda-pop. It tasted like liquid shit. And Orange or Grape Crush, but that was so sweet it’d make you sick.

So we’d get home with the pizza and drink all the soda, and since we weren’t used to that much sugar and caffeine all in one hit, I expect we pretty much went berserk after dinner. That’s probably why pizza night was a rare enough occasion to be remembered as “special.”

Berserk times at home were happy times.

Even now, every once in a while, I have a fit of berserk.

Mostly when something else is going to hell in a handbasket.

Happy Pizza Night!



“Knit one, pearl two,” she mumbled through pursed lips. “Knit two, pearl one. Knit three, pearl three.”

Then she stopped.

“Wait a minute,” she told herself. “How did I do it on the last row.”

She ran her arthritis-twisted fingers over the edge of the red sweater.

“Damn it!” she said. “Missed a pearl. It’ll take me forever to get this done. I should’ve just picked up a gift card at Target for his birthday. They’ll probably never put it on him anyway.”

She began pulling out the stitches to get back to the mistaken stitch. Red yarn everywhere, dangling from the park bench, started twisting into knots in the breeze. “Damn these knots.”

She left off unravelling the sweater to untangle the mess, twisting up the spare yarn around her wrist.

That was when she noticed the couple walking toward her along the path.

They were holding hands. Neither said anything. Her long, dark brown hair blew across her face with the same breeze that had tangled her yarn. She tried to untangle it and hold it back with her delicate smooth fingers.

Blue nail polish. She could remember when her daughter used to wear blue nail polish. That was before she had Nicholas last year. After she’d had the baby, she stopped painting her nails. Stopped using make-up at all, really. Post-partum depression. Wouldn’t talk to anyone. Wouldn’t return her phone calls. Beatrice never did understand why her daughter couldn’t just get over it. She’d told her as much last Christmas. That was the last they’d spoken.

“Yes,” she remembered. “That’s why I started this damn sweater.” Maybe her daughter would see that she really did care after all.

She could see as they drew nearer that with this couple, it was the man who was sad. He wore a deep frown and his bottom lip was quivering as they passed by. He caught her looking at him and put his hand over his face.

She looked away as quickly as she could and pretended to go back to her knitting.

But she could hear him as they continued down the path. He was crying.

Beatrice shrugged. “You never know with people,” she muttered.

Then, looking back down at her work, “Where was I? Oh, yes, that’s supposed to be three pearls there.”

A Place with No Adverbs

Every morning after dropping the kid at the school bus stop the dog and I walk down to the park.

It’s a small park. One small block of mowed lawn with a gazebo and a fountain, and a community center across the street. On each corner sits a stone park bench, flat, no back. The four of them are like squat Stonehenge monuments. Polished, knee-high slabs of gray granite .

They are monuments. Engraved in each of them is someone’s name “in memory of.” Each has a verse to go with the name, but the inscriptions don’t say who the person to be remembered was, or what he or she is to be remembered for. Some of them might be town fathers whose names are known only to members of the historical society. Others may be people who helped fund the park restoration. I suspect they are people who bought the benches as monuments to themselves.

According to the 2010 census, the population of Jay, NY is 2,506. That’s for the whole town which covers the hamlets of Jay, Upper Jay and AuSable (pronounced “aw-sable”) Forks, as well as 68.3 square miles of wilderness. The park is in the Hamlet of Jay, population closer to 300. By the time the dog and I got there this morning a little past 8, the only other visitors were a few crows and a chipmonk.

The morning fog, typical of adirondack river valleys in fall, covered the scene in a thick blanket. The trees at the other end of the block appeared as dark silhouettes in the mist. A lone car passed, then three utility trucks turned at the corner, breaks squealing. Then quiet.

The crows took flight and the chipmonk scampered up a tree as we crossed into the grass, leaving the whole park to us. We did our customary loop around the perimeter. The dog peed on the base of each of the granite memorials in turn.

Another car rushed by, speeding. Either the guy doesn’t know the 35 mile-per-hour stretch through the hamlet is a favorite state police speed trap, or he doesn’t care.

We are alone again, the dog and I. We head home, because it’s time to report our daily trip, without benefit of adverbs, to the September class of Writing 101.

Note: The point of this post is to paint a scene of a public place without using adverbs. After the 1st draft I went back and found three had snuck in. I think I’ve removed them all, above. But it’s possible you may still find one. Maybe more than one. If you do, please note it in the comments! Thanks.


Salt and Pepper

Brooke has always collected salt and pepper shakers. One of the sets sitting in the kitchen window is the dog and gramophone from the RCA Victor record label.

Salt and Pepper Shakers shaped like the RCA Victor dog and gramophone

The Victor trademark, “His Master’s Voice” is now owned by HMV Retail, Ltd. I’m not sure where the salt and pepper shakers came from, or if they qualify as “official” merchandise. All I know is they sit on our kitchen window in a perpetual conversation.

“You’re nothing but an empty ornament. There’s no real pepper in there. I can see right through those holes. There’s nothing in there.”

“Of course there’s nothing in there. How do you think there’d be any space for the sound to properly reverberate if I were all jammed up with pepper? Not that you ever really listen.”

“I’d listen if you had anything worth saying all these years.”

“Sure, you look like you’re listening. It’s nothing but a pose for you, is it? That’s all anything is to you, a pose.”

“It’s not a pose! I’ve been listening for my master’s voice for years. Why I should expect to hear it from you is beyond me.”

“Poser! What do you know about voice? The most you’re capable of is yowling.”

“It’s not yowling. It’s singing.”

“Singing. Bah! I’ve been singing to you all these years. I’ve played everything for you. I’ve played the Ode to Joy. I’ve played Mozart. I’ve played Elvis, Harry Belafonte and Jefferson Airplane. Anything RCA ever released. Don’t tell me about your singing. I know singing. That incessant baying is not singing.”

“Don’t give yourself so much credit. You’re nothing but a copycat. You’ve got nothing original. Whatever comes on the vinyl disks is all you’ve got. I’ve got real emotion! When I sing, it’s not someone else’s material. It’s what I’m feeling, deep down.”

“Deep down. What deep down? You know you’ve got nothing. You’re just an empty ceramic shell. Nothing but an empty ornament. There’s no real salt in there.”


I met Shirley last spring. Her sister Evie, who I know from Rotary, introduced us by way of her Friday bridge group of which I’m now a regular part.

Shirley moved back east from her retirement village in Arizona when her husband died a couple years ago. She lives in the house on their family farm. Evie says it’s actually her house now, but since Evie lives with her common-law husband in town she’s happy for her sister to keep the old place occupied.

Before she retired she’d been a school teacher. High school math. She still carries herself like a math teacher, too. She’s not large or loud, but her straight back and piercing eyes scream, “Pay attention!” Naturally, she’s the bridge group’s official score-keeper.

It’s only been in the past month she decided to stay permenantly in the farmhouse. She’d been reserving her option to move back to Arizona. I can’t say I blame her. The brutal Adirondack winters are enough to make anyone wonder why they should stay when they have a perfectly good house in the desert southwest.

Shirley has a dog, Honey. It’s one of those little yappy poofters. Someone gave it to her because it’s so yappy. I suppose they thought she needed a watch dog, since otherwise she’d be there all alone. And they do make good company for each other. She treats it like a two year old grandchild and we all indulge her thinking of it that way. She doesn’t have any human children or grandchildren.

In the fall for the two years she’s been here she hosts a harvest dinner for the Rotary club. Last year I was out of town that evening and missed it. She did venison chili. This Wednesday she’s doing a ham dinner. She does all the cooking. Club members are allowed to bring a few of the trimmings, like pickles and dinner roles. She hosts it at the farmhouse.

Every week after the bridge game she serves dessert. It’s nearly always something that takes a lot of doing. Pie. Cheesecake. That sort of thing. It’s always good. We get done right before dinner, but she insists that dessert must follow bridge. She doesn’t say where she got her education in cooking. Years of practice, as near as I can tell. But who she’s been cooking for all these years, with no family other than her late husband and her sister — that remains a mystery.