The Morning Call

I sometimes wake at dawn to a feeling of dread buried deep in the pit of my stomach.  Sometimes I know the source; other times I have no clue.

The morning calls began in February, 2008.  My sister called one night to tell me that her advancing struggles with lifting her feet and walking had been diagnosed:  Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  Her callous neurologist delivered her death sentence just before Christmas.  He said, “You’ve got ALS.  Go home; quit your job; buy a wheelchair.”

Carla died in 2013.  My wife’s recovery from intense vertigo began, in the same month, to drift backward into a nasty, prolonged relapse.  From the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2014, I often woke up in the gray predawn to worries about my wife’s health and our financial future.  A gnawing feeling ate away at my stomach, and nothing made it go away until I gave up on sleep and got busy with the work of the day.

I woke up this morning with a similar sensation in my gut.  Nothing terribly bad is going on in my life at the moment, though worries about my parents nag from time to time.  I tried to pinpoint the trouble spot generating my discomfort, but came up blank.  I chalked it up at first to free floating anxiety, but became dissatisfied with an easy dismissal of the problem.

I thought about this possibility:  maybe fear is a form of emotional PTSD.  2013 endures in memory as the worst year of my life, and the waves of upheaval and unease I’m still experiencing are just late arrivals.  Starlight comes to us from eons ago.  Maybe the pain from a past event still approaches like a dissipating wave from a distant source.

Another possibility:  I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, and my eventual demise no longer seems all that eventual.  My uncomfortable morning gut might just be my body and unconscious coming to grips with death.

One last possibility:  fear is the ground of existence.  I fear death.  I fear pain, emotional and physical.  I fear conflict and failure.  I fear losing whatever measure of love, comfort and success I’ve gained.  I fear dying alone.  Buddha said that the basic condition of life is suffering.  Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.  It feels more like fear to me.

Einstein reported that qualms of mortality had begun in old age to transform into another sensation, one of merging with nature.  As his body failed, so did the barriers between his ego and the cosmos.

Many claim that death is just the transformation of an energy signature into another form, an escape from the drudgeries of mortal life to an immortality of freedom and light.  That sounds pretty good to me…

But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that I’m getting close to Albert’s state of transcendence.  Acknowledging that I’m afraid, paradoxically, makes fear more bearable.  If fear is a norm, there’s not much point worrying about it or even taking it too seriously.   Denying fear is like trying to avoid the effects of gravity.

Douglas Adams jokingly described a method of flying:  a person must throw themselves at the ground and miss.  Maybe courage and good cheer are gained by throwing oneself at fear and missing.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

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A Narrow Slice Of Time: Chapter 1

Judy and I are working on our third novel in our sci-fi time traveler series.  I’m going to post one chapter a week from the first book, “A Narrow Slice of Time”, until we finish “Stitches Nine”.

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Grasping at Time is a fool’s errand. The faster it slips by the quicker our release from misery and regret. And only a Fool wishes to go back and relive his life, to undo mistakes made, to savor in full the precious moments he once neglected to treasure. If he could return and make his corrections, then another line of errors would spring forth; if he cherished an instant he had previously ignored, then he would forsake another sweet demand upon his attention. Tis better to live in the middle of each minute and advance as Providence allows, looking neither forward nor back. Do not concern yourself with the Speed and Course of your Days, but swim in time’s stream from Birth to Death like a fish gliding through tranquil waters.
R.L. Mundicutt, 1832, Cottage Whyteford, Sussex.

Chapter 1

2036 (Standard Timeline)
Bill Plum and Aubrey Piazza climbed the steps to a gleaming, white building that resembled a knock-off copy of the Taj Mahal. The cylindrical towers on either side of the faux mausoleum were made from a material that looked like marble when viewed from a considerable distance. A sign carved in bas relief above the central, arched doorway was inscribed with the corporate logo: GURUTECH. The letters had the lilt and tilt of Sanskrit.
Aubrey was a hard faced, large boned, somewhat muscular woman of forty. Her auburn hair had a few streaks of grey near the temples. She wore tan slacks, a black silk blouse with a plunging neckline, and leather sandals. Her sunglasses were very dark, and her eyes were concealed by the reflections on the surface of the lenses. She had deep grooves on either side of her down turned mouth, and when she paused as she spoke she sometimes twisted her lips and grimaced as if she were sucking on something distasteful.
Bill was a nondescript rabbit of a man. His doughy face was dominated by a large, barrel shaped nose that skewed slightly to the left. His midsection sagged over his belt and his shoulders rounded forward. His suit was gray and rumpled, his hair mouse brown, and his black shoes scuffed. He had the neglected appearance of an aging bachelor, a threadbare man who had exhausted his meager promise long ago. Bill pulled Aubrey aside before they reach the entrance.
“Did you study the packet, Aubrey?” he said.
“Yes, of course I did,” she answered.
“I know that you don’t believe in their mumbo-jumbo, but they won’t let you take your trip until you satisfy them.”
“Why do you keep after me about that? I studied. I’m not stupid.”
“Tell it to me again. I helped you pay their fee and negotiate your errand. I don’t want to waste my time and money.”
“It’s always about that, isn’t it? It’s all about the cash.”
“Yes, dear, it is. Recite.”
“Jesus, what a pain…GURUTECH was founded in 2028 by a bunch of swamis from Kerala who enlisted the aid of a theoretical physicist from Stanford University named Fleming Anderson. Together they discovered that all moments in time exist simultaneously; they’re stacked like slices of bread. Every narrow slice of time has its own vibration signature and, and…and then they go on about string theory, Heisenberg, fluid time and gravity constants, mumbo jumbo Einstein, blah, blah, unified field, blah.”
“Correct so far. They won’t expect you to totally understand the physics, but I would leave out the blah, blah, blahs if I were you. Go on.”
“Right. If a person can attune their own personal vibration signature to the signature of a particular time period, they are instantly transported to that moment. Then there’s something about a law of affinity and spontaneous attraction. That part always sounds like a pick up line to me.”
“Aubrey.”
“Bill. Stop fussing. I’m not going to say that to the techs when I walk through that door.”
“Continue.”
“Most people cannot attune their personal vibration signal, or PVS, or maintain it long enough for the transportation to occur. GURUTECH’s engineers developed a wave mirror chamber that echoes and enhances the chance vibrations that are synchronous with a distinct time period. The person gradually comes more and more into alignment with their target destination, and within an hour they find themselves in Ancient Rome or 20th century Europe. They are allowed limited engagement with the events of the target time period, and must return within seven minutes. A chip embedded in the base of their skull acts as a portable enhancer and causes the traveler to fall into a trance at the end of seven minutes. A warning buzz in the ear alerts the traveler to their imminent departure. Traveling back to one’s own time is easier because the traveler is naturally in synchrony with their own period. The transportation goes much more easily, however, if the traveler assumes the correct mental posture just before the portable enhancer goes off.”
“And you’ve been practicing that, I hope?”
“Yesss—you’re such a worry wart. Yes, I’ve been practicing. You close your eyes, center them on the magic spot in the middle of your forehead—“
“Stop calling it that! Third eye. Be sure to call it the third eye!”
“Yeah, yeah. Then I watch my breaths. I say Om when I inhale and moo when I exhale.”
“Stop being such an ass. Om and aum. Om and aum.”

“Don’t call me an ass. Can’t you recognize when I’m telling a joke by now?”
“This is serious, Aubrey, very serious.”
“Yeah, yeah…Are you sure that it was okay to tell them about what I plan to do?”
“Yes. Telling your ex-husband what a jerk he is, or was, or will be will not significantly alter the present. The man had literally no impact on anyone but you. But remember to carry out your assignment too. You have to buy the last vanilla iced cupcake from that shop near your old apartment. That’s vital. And it’s part of the price of your ticket.”
“Messing with Jeff’s head is okay, but it’s vital that I buy a cupcake. That’s weird.”
“Vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles. The gurus know what they’re doing. Carry out the deal as stated in the contract or they might send you to medieval Germany at some random moment. They don’t like it if you fail to carry out your part of the bargain.”
“Are we done now?”
“Yes, dear. You know it’s not just about the money. I care about you and I’m worried that something bad might happen. Promise me that you’ll be careful and do as you’re told. Please don’t lose your temper and do something rash.”
“Stop talking and let me get on with this.”
“It won’t really help, you know. The satisfaction will be momentary, and it won’t improve things in this time.”
“Bill, at my age I’ve learned that all satisfactions are momentary. You and I have proved that over and over. Last night was another example.”
Bill sighed and let go of her arm. They climbed the last few steps and entered a doorway to the right. A sign above their heads told them that they were entering the Hall of Time. The smell of sandalwood incense overwhelmed them as they passed inside. Orange robed monks and nuns walked about with quick, light steps, entering and exiting through arched doorways on either side of the hall. The men had shaved heads, and the women wore light scarves that covered their hair. Bill and Aubrey walked down the long, marble-floored hallway until they reached a reception desk. A few armchairs upholstered with a shiny, orange material were placed in a semicircle off to the left. When she studied the chairs closely Aubrey saw that the cloth was stitched with magenta threads that formed pulsating, interlocking patterns. The receptionist wore a fixed smile on her face. Her lips curled serenely, but the slight clench of her jaw gave her an air of willful determination.
“Namaste. Good morning. Welcome to the GURUTECH Hall of Time. What is the nature of your business?”
“My name is Aubrey Piazza. I’m scheduled to make a journey today.”
“Ah, yes. I have you down on my roster. Forgive me for not recalling your name. We have had many travelers the last few days.”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s next?”
“You will have to fill out some paper work: some forms giving us final clearance, a legal statement freeing GURUTECH from liability in all instances save technical failure, and a form declaring that your present physical and mental state is sound.”
“I thought that I already signed off on that.”
“Oh, no. Many of our clients make that assumption when they begin training. Those forms just cleared you for the training program. These forms are for the actual trip. And after you’ve finished with these there’s a short test that tells us whether you have studied the process and are aware of the parameters of your mission. Please take a seat over there and use the touch screen attached to the arm. This should only take about twenty minutes.”
“Seems like a lot of paper work for a seven minute trip.”
“You may back out of our arrangement if you wish, Miss Piazza.”
“I’ve come this far. I might as well go through with it.”
“We would be most pleased if you did, Miss Aubrey, as our technicians have devoted a great deal of time and effort in making your dual mission safe, comfortable and full of purpose.”
Aubrey took a seat in the nearest armchair, swung a padded arm over her lap and booted the touch screen embedded in the arm. Bill watched her type in her answers until he heard the receptionist cough politely.
“Sir, will you be traveling today also?”
“No, I just wanted to make sure that Aubrey, Miss Piazza, was taken care of.”
“She will be fine, sir. Her trip has been planned meticulously, and our technicians will watch over her with great care.”
“Yes. I remember you telling me that when I went on my mission. That didn’t go as planned. Did your technicians watch over me?”
“It’s Mr. Plum, is it not? I believe that I have seen your face before on memos received from our legal department. Your complaints about your experience have been taken into consideration, and your journey is now used as a case study when we train new technicians. We are pleased that you made it back to our time and that the errors that you introduced into your time line were insignificant and easily erased. I trust that your trip to Magdeburg was not too unsettling.”
“Magdeburg! Do you know what that was like?”
“Yes, Mr. Plum. All employees of GURUTECH are given a simulated experience of our default destination. There were many choices that we considered during the Thirty Years War in Germany. The 17th century in Europe was rife with wholesale slaughter, religious persecution, famine, pestilence and aimless destruction. We narrowed our selection down to the Fall of Magdeburg as it was an event so utterly chaotic and disastrous that no amount of interference by our travelers could significantly change the flow of time. Such moments in time are rare, Mr. Plum. We regret any discomfort that you experienced there, and hope that the basket of fruit and bottle of brandy we gave you on your return relieved your anxiety in some small way.”
“I spent four weeks in a psych unit having the emotional scars erased. I still can’t go to a barbecue. My memories of that place are nearly gone, but I know that it was total hell.”
“Yes, sir. Many of our default travelers describe Magdeburg with those very words. If you wish to file another formal complaint about your experience, I can ring this buzzer and two of our most considerate monks will escort you to our public relations office.”
The receptionist pointed to a buzzer on her desk with her index finger, and looked over her shoulder in the direction of two burly men in an office behind her. Bill raised his hands in supplication and took a step back from the desk.

“No, no. I don’t want to make a complaint. I just want to make sure that Aubrey—Miss Piazza is taken good care of.”
“Your concerns will be noted in our log. Perhaps it is time for you to wish Miss Piazza a successful journey, sir. Will you be here tomorrow in case Miss Piazza needs assistance following her return and processing?”
“Yes. Do you still have my number on file?”
“Yes, sir. We know all about you.”
The receptionist smiled as she said these last words, but there was no warmth in her expression. Bill took another step back and turned in Aubrey’s direction. She waved the back of her hand at him to dismiss him, and Bill stammered out a weak, “Good luck,” before hustling away.
“I’m ready,” Aubrey said to the receptionist as she finished her last entry. The receptionist transferred Aubrey’s forms and the completed test to a screen on the reception desk; she maintained her fixed smile for the most part, but frowned occasionally as she clicked buttons on the keyboard and touched icons on the screen. At one point, as the receptionist carefully studied a form, she reached for a phone, but hesitated and withdrew her hand. She glanced up at Aubrey with doubt in her eyes as she reread a passage several times, and then scrolled through all of the documents one more time.
“Why yes, Miss Piazza. You are ready,” she finally replied. She gave Aubrey her cold smile and waved to the burly monks in the office behind her. They stepped forward and Aubrey was surprised to see that they wore pistols in the orange sashes around their waists.
“What’s with the hardware?” she asked the receptionist.
“Bon voyage, Miss Piazza,” said the receptionist.
The two men rapidly came up to Aubrey and stood on either side of her. The one on the right took a gentle hold on her elbow and began to lead her toward the office. When she jerked her arm out of his grasp and tried to pull away from them, they simply picked her up by the shoulders and feet and carried her end to end as if she were a rolled up carpet.
“Bill!” she screamed once before disappearing behind the doors of the office.

Mr. Timpone: Teacher Of Grace and Ease

I saw a man playing the organ at my Mom’s church, and he looked familiar.  He hunched over the keyboard and effortlessly trotted out a soothing bit of church music by Bach.  I thought, “Is that Mr. Timpone?”

Mr. Timpone taught at my elementary school, and took a music instructor position when I was in the sixth grade.  He had just graduated from college and looked like a mature high school kid.  His kind and easy manner put us at ease, and he encouraged an appreciation of music by introducing contemporary works.  Not modern classical music in the manner of Stravinsky or Shostakovich, but rock operas such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.  I still remember enjoying “What’s the Buzz?” from JCS.  I disliked the moments when Jesus felt the need to scream, however, and Judas’ extended freak out near the end disturbed me.  But Mr. Timpone explained the music in terms we understood and allowed us to explore our reactions.  No judgments, no condescension.

Mr. Timpone eventually left my parish school and took a job in the public system.  He married, had children, and could no longer make ends meet on the meager salary he earned at Ascension Catholic School.  He served in other capacities, however.  He was the choir director when my mother got drafted to join, and she also enjoyed his easy going ways.  He could tease relaxed but beautiful performances out of his singers, and never made them feel like a practice was a chore.  Subsequent directors favored a more disciplinarian approach, and my mother had to adjust to the disapproving demeanor of one who turned out to be a stickler for details.  That woman produced tighter performances delivered with much less joy.

Mom confirmed my identification after we took a seat in a pew, and I went over to talk to him before Mass started. I introduced myself, and he squinted with a friendly smile. He said, “The more I look at you, the more familiar you become.” He’d last seen me when I was fourteen, and I felt surprised that I vaguely resembled any memory he may have had.  I had gained 80 pounds and grayed extensively in the 45 year interim.

We chatted about teaching, schools, his children and mine. He said that his middle daughter had given him a grandchild, but the oldest and youngest showed no signs of settling down.  I said that mine had just married.  We talked about his career and retirement, my work, living in Orlando.  He listened carefully to everything, and I felt like we had been friends all these years.

The Mass and sermon did little for me, but my talk with Mr. Timpone lingered.  I wished that I had a similar talent for putting others at ease, but felt grateful that people like Mr. Timpone exist.  They move through our lives making us feel more comfortable in our skins, giving us a sense that all will be well.  Angels of grace may live among us.

 

Tree Beavers

We bought our house partially for the trees.  Other lots in the neighborhood were denuded patches of grass, easy to manage but sterile looking.  We liked the shade and the snug feeling of living in a mini forest.  After a few years, we realized that trees in Florida jump out of the ground and grow seven feet in a year.  Too much of a good thing. We began to cut down trees growing close to the house, but missed a few along the way.

We had a lightning damaged laurel oak removed a few years ago, but another grew along the east fence by the back yard shed.  It dropped branches down on the shed and pushed its thick trunk up against the power line.  Three laurel cherries grew nearby and entangled the line in their foliage.  A camphor, one half on our side, the other in the rental yard next door, stretched its branches over the east side of our house. We decided last year, right after we weathered Hurricane Irma, to remove looming threats wherever we could.

Seven men from Kevin’s Tree Service came yesterday and did the job in three hours.  Drizzly rain fell intermittently, and the workers wasted no time.  They brought a flatbed trailer for heavy branches and trunks, a bobcat front loader, a chipper, a bucket lift, a crane, rakes, a leaf blower and a several chain saws.  They cut, hoisted, sawed, raked and chipped like busy beavers.  A man wearing spiked boots let the crane lift him to the top of the laurel oak.  He attached a loop to sections of the trunk and sawed beneath to let the crane lift the tree out part by part.  The heavy trunk came last, and I hunkered down when the crane operator swung a twelve foot length over our roof.  He managed to swivel it from the back yard, around the magnolia in the front, and down to the bottom of our driveway.  Men chained sawed it into smaller sections, and the Bobcat scooped them up.

The crew finished just before heavy rains started to fall at midday.  They cleared the yard, loaded equipment, and left soon after I signed papers and wrote a check.  It all happened so fast.

Now we have more light shining down on our back yard.  The power line hangs free and clear.  We’re still surrounded by our mini forest, but it’s a bit thinner and not so close to the house.

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Lots of jobs remain to do inside and outside our house, but I’m relieved that this one’s crossed off the list two days before hurricane season starts.  Yesterday’s rain was a parting gift from Tropical Storm Alberto.

 

 

The Best of Times

I’ve read that we are better at remembering bad things.  Our minds etch them in place as a survival tactic.  One remembers a punch longer and more vividly than a caress:  fights can lead to death and damage; loving touches do not.

I’m prone to negativity.  Someone once asked me to choose which character from “Winnie the Pooh” I most resembled, and I picked Eeyore.  I assume the worst, am pleasantly surprised when something better comes along, and immediately worry about how long it will last.

But I’ve gotten a bit better over the years.  So today, as Tropical Storm Alberto lumbers through the Gulf of Mexico and dumps torrents of rain on my roof, I’ve decided to recall some of my better moments.  Most of them are brief glimpses of happiness.

  1.  Mom is hanging laundry on the clothesline in our back yard.  I’m very young, and she is tall, strong and beautiful.  A cool breeze blows across my forehead.  The roses in the garden are bright red and fragrant, and the sky is bluer than blue.  It’s spring.
  2. I’m about ten.  We’ve pulled up to the house in my Dad’s old Dodge, and now, as I walk up the sidewalk to the front door, I happen to look over at a patch of grass and mud.  Something about the pattern of green and brown brings up a thrill of joy.  I can’t figure out why I suddenly feel so happy, but don’t care.
  3. I’m on the mound pitching for our seventh grade team.  We’re up one run in the last inning, and I’ve given up a homerun to the last hitter.  I need one more out to win the game.  The huge batter at the plate looks clumsy as he takes his practice swings.  I throw three fastballs high and tight.  He can’t get his bat around quickly enough to hit them, and I strike him out.
  4. I ask my first girlfriend for a kiss, and she happily complies.
  5. My future wife, Judy, and I are driving in her little blue Subaru on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  We’re engaged and returning from a visit to her parents.  They had never met me before.  I’ve passed inspection, and all things “are go” for our wedding.  I look at the passing trees, the mountain ridges on either side, and I feel like we are starting a great adventure.
  6. Annie lies on a bed next to Judy.  I stand at the door and study them as they sleep, and then go out to the kitchen to wash baby bottles.  I’ve recently become a father and feel dazed but deeply content.
  7. My son, Alan, and I ride bikes home from school.  His second grade teacher has given him yet another miserable day, and he delivers a blow by blow account.  I try to change his mood, but he’s stuck in an angry loop. We keep squirt guns in the carport, and I get off my bike and start to fill one.  He grabs a second, and we chase around the front yard.
  8. Judy, Annie and I sit in a crowded tea shop in Edinburgh.  We’ve just hiked up Arthur’s Seat on a rainy, blustery day.  A woman with a thick brogue takes our orders.  We talk about our day’s adventures and our upcoming trip to the Highlands.  Our waitress brings us a pot of tea and a tray of cakes and pastries.  I look around at the Victorian bric-a brac on the walls and bite into a slice of lemon cake.   I’ve never tasted anything so good.
  9. Judy and I are outside on the back porch of the main house at Leu Gardens.  We’ve retreated from the noise of the wedding reception inside.  The DJ has decided to crank up the volume to levels my wife can’t tolerate, and we find a bit of peace and quiet as we stare out at the reflections on the lake.  Our boy’s just gotten married, and his sister will follow suit in a few months.  Judy and I marvel at how far the four of us have come.
  10. Judy and I watch an episode of “Doc Martin” before going to bed.  There’s church tomorrow, but nothing else has been planned.  Judy lays her arm next to mine, and we hold hands.

 

Halloween 1983

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Exit, moist lips and laced cups, the party undead but dying.
Your feet danced, I sang, but we left in a rush.
Antonio’s neon, steamed breath, and you screamed
At the mask. No danger. The soft touch whispered “yes”.

Loose trash scudded the dumpster, and the stair creaked;
Scraped the frost, the windows fogged.  We stopped, landing.
Second gear, clutch, pushed forward and against.
No one but shadows climbed the hill. Your cheek nestled mine.

Buckles, belt, stockings; bare wood floor; candlelit handfuls of just enough.
And the chianti bottle dripped wax; I haunted as
fingers tipped. A white calf, upended: you drew in, sighed.
Détente:  the shared heat of mammals.

Two ghosts floated, the sheets thrown over
Slick rain streets, dim mirrors.
Triangles grinned as clouds grazed the moon.
The candle fluttered.

 

Doggone

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My wife and I came home at 10 last night, and while she arranged things in her lap and prepared to step out of the car, I stood by the front door and yipped and whined.  Judy said, “Stop that.”  Master commanded, and I obeyed.

We dog sat a miniature whippet and a terrier for the last couple weeks.  Sedgewick and Shakespeare erupted every time Judy and I  returned from a trip and stepped onto our front porch.  When we entered, they pawed our calves, wagged tails, and chased each other around the living room to welcome us home.

And today when daughter Annie and husband Bryant walked through the door, their dogs greeted them with even more enthusiasm.  Shakespeare, the retiring chap who spent most of his days staring at us with the sad resignation of a French Existentialist philosopher, practically did back flips when Bryant greeted him.  Sedgewick tried to climb up Annie’s legs and leap into her arms.  Their tails whipped back and forth in blurs.  Their true masters had returned!

Annie and Bryant packed up and left around 3:30 and headed back to Miami.  The dog dishes, leashes, and food bin are gone.  I picked up the blankets, sheets and pillows we put out for the dogs on the sofas and floor.  The red sofa has a smooth, hair-free texture once again. Fragments of pigskin chew toys no longer litter the carpet.  I’ve washed the sheets on my bed and can expect to sleep tonight in relative ease.  (I won’t have Sedgewick wedged mid back and Shakespeare lodged against my shins.)  And I feel a little sad.

The quiet in our house is a relief, and I’m looking forward to a few weeks of an easier schedule.  The peace will be relaxing, but perhaps dull.  I’ve grown accustomed to their yips.  I also got reacquainted with the enjoyment of meeting another creature’s basic needs.  It’s similar to the happiness of feeding a first dish of ice cream to a baby.  A tiny act of generosity makes eyes light up with joy.  The exchange is direct and uncomplicated, and no subtexts or unspoken demands ruin the innocence of the moment.

Perhaps that’s why we still keep dogs around.  They serve no useful purpose, but remind us to be more open handed and simple.

 

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