The Sweet Shoppe

“Take off this stuff about writing poetry, and add in something about church,” he said, handing me my résumé across his desk.

I had graduated with an English degree and was spiritually curious but decidedly agnostic, despite the president’s popular far-right stances and his wife’s naïve “Just Say No” campaign, both wrapped in an understanding of religion like an assassin in a monk’s habit.

“That doesn’t matter,” he retorted, referring to my spiritual state. “They’ll look for some kind of church involvement.”

ice cream - Peggy CollinsHe was a fellow surfer, whom I’d known for a few years during high school and then college, and now I was turning to him for job-seeking advice. He later suggested to several of us one Saturday afternoon—all much younger than he—that we consider sinking a few old boats offshore from our shared beach community in order to create a reef, which would trap and build up the sand and result in year-round waves. As a 20-something party boy, I didn’t bother to wonder whether this was legal. I cared only if he had enough money to do it.

It never happened.

To my knowledge.

There in his office, floor to ceiling glass behind me but still feeling like a cage, he told me to lie while not one hair of his slicked-back sandy blonde hair moved. His midnight blue shirt had thin white stripes; his yellow tie was fastened tight up to a starched white collar, and a silver collar bar restrained the knot.

Years later, having had a spiritual conversion to Christianity, I and my wife decided we wanted to purchase pew Bibles for the beach community’s quaint church, which had worship services from the last Sunday in June through Labor Day. Visiting ministers would preach one, two or even three Sundays, as in the case of the well-known former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who always packed the house. Later these ministers might be seen on the cocktail party circuit, or in Bermuda shorts at the club, which perpetually was threatened or washed away in hurricanes and nor’easters over the decades of this century-old community.

One minister would perform baptisms in the ocean; he had a handlebar mustache and an infectious smile. Another looked like Santa Claus. I asked him prior to my senior year of college, “Why don’t you tell everyone what you really believe?”

“Because,” he answered slowly, “if I did, they wouldn’t invite me back, and I want to be able to minister to them over the long haul.”

I sang in the children’s choir at this summer community, and the organist and choir director taught all twenty or so of us kids to have all forty or so eyes trained on her at all times. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” and other anthems, and after Friday afternoon rehearsals we’d each get a ticket for a free ice cream at the Candy Store—or the “sweet shoppe,” as my friend’s British nanny would call it. Mary—“Mother Mary,” as those of us who went on to sing in the adult choir would call her—taught us to hear our singing from where the congregation sat. From the pews.

Annunciate the “t” at the end of words. Soften or drop the “s” at the end, so that we don’t have mass hissing. Drop our jaws when singing “slumbers” (“not, nor sleeps”) and gloss over the “l.”

Thursday night rehearsal was worship in itself.

And in those pews there were hymnals but no Bibles. So it seemed fitting that a useful gift to the church would be enough copies of that tool, so that people hearing the sermon, and especially those preached by Mary’s husband, now deceased, but who came closest to telling me those truths I needed to hear but didn’t want to hear, could follow along. These were, after all, highly educated and literate folk. You’d imagine that the corporate attorneys in the room—there were not a few—would want to cross-reference the source if they heard something they might object to.

To discuss the gift, I called the Church Committee Chairperson, who at the time was the wife of the fellow surfer in the slick-backed hair, the man in the glass cage, the man with the restrained yellow tie who wanted to sink ships to get consistent waves and who told me to lie about my salvation. I told her over the phone about the gift, and that we wanted to memorialize the man who told me Truth.

There was a pause on her end.

“Now… ‘pew bibles,’” she started. “Are these associated with some kind of denomination?”

I told her that they were not, and described that they could be any one of a number of modern translations. That they typically sat in shelves behind the pews or could be stacked at the ends of the pews.

She needed time to figure out how this could work.

A week later she called and said that, unfortunately, it would cost too much money to retrofit the shelves to hold the Bibles. As to my alternate suggestion for stowage, neither was there enough room at the end of each pew to stack them.

The man who told me the truth that crushed me to life had died, and others who had sprinkled it on my tongue to make me thirsty had retired, but others—including Bishop Spong for at least a few more years—continued to come and offer their messages, which were ravenously consumed week after week. Hurricanes and nor’easters continued to ravage the beach and reclaim the dunes and toy with the houses as though they were made of Lego, and the men continued to come and preach their messages to the smiling women and men who packed the pews.

The service would end promptly at eleven.

Many would shake hands quickly on their way out, because they were due at the courts and needed time to bike home first and change into tennis whites.

photo: Peggy Collins

Not write

In my desire to make things shiny and new, make them tidy and “branded,” make sure the quotation marks looked more like sans serif fonts and less like Courier, make sure I spoke only of external things and not of those things that were roiling inside, make sure that sentences and paragraphs were well edited and that posts were accompanied by an attractive–even come-hither–Flickr photograph that I’d rip with Preview and of course attribute at the bottom (with appropriately manipulated font size and coloration), make sure that if clients or business partners or bosses or friends with money or practically anyone with power real or imagined navigated here that they’d find an antiseptic-at-worst and “fun”-at-best post, in my desire to make people like me–to please others–I found it easier simply to not write in 2012.  Or if I wrote, to not post.

But mainly, to not write.

I’d rather write than correct all the Courier quotation marks.  And most of the other stuff as well.

Mead’s 2010 in review

The stats folks at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010 and, just for fun, we’ve posted their high-level summary of its overall health. This is what they sent us:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 5,000 times in 2010. That’s about 12 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 27 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 307 posts. There were 38 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 8mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was April 9th with 122 views. The most popular post that day was Doing ‘The Worm’ to a Polka.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, networkedblogs.com, travel.nytimes.com, well.blogs.nytimes.com, and twitter.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for pearl snap shirts, breath of god, pearl snap, pearl snap shirt, and camel filterless.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Doing ‘The Worm’ to a Polka April 2010
1 comment

2

Does Jorge wear pearl snap? February 2008
1 comment

3

Naked neighbors with illegal gas grills April 2009
1 comment

4

נְשָׁמָה August 2007
2 comments

5

“Mead”? September 2007
1 comment

photo: Philipp Klinger

Retrospective

Words—springing from thoughts like tender shoots, or sometimes thistles—are the stuff of this blog, so I offer a Wordle picture of a past essay called ‘My Black Cat’ as apropos of the new year.

And since new thoughts sometimes require new soil to cultivate them in (as happened when we moved from Surfcountry to Mead), so we are considering moving the discussion from here to a new place on the World Wide Web.

More to come.

Being a man of few words

Though I worked until nearly midnight last night and was dog tired, having got three hours of sleep the night before, I tossed for most of my six hours in the sack, trying not to wake my wife and thinking about that blasted NPR story on the “six-word memoir” that one of my Facebook friends posted.

 

I had clicked unwittingly on the link yesterday morning and, like a Koobface virus, the item quickly took hold of my greying brain coils and replicated itself within my consciousness, so that between about 3:00 and 5:50 this morning I could think only of that and whether my 45-year-old prostate was squeezing my bladder enough to warrant a trip out from the warm covers and over to the bathroom.  The allure to a writer – of the memoir thingy, not the bladder deal – is how to capture a life in so few words.  Legend has it Hemingway was asked to write a complete story in six words.  He penned, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  The challenge in this case, the article said, is to write a memoir, not a fortune cookie.

 

The first words that came to me, and actually it was earlier in the day, sometime 01072009ames2880yesterday afternoon after the NPR piece had ruminated around a bit, were:

 

Twice born, twice adopted, praise Jesus.

 

Oh, please say not so.  Do I get a white sweatshirt with pastel kittens along with my book purchase, ma’am?

 

Sometime in the single digit hours last night, though, a more objective string of past participles reared its Medusa-like head:

 

Conceived.  Unwanted.  Adopted.  Rebelled.  Found.  Restored.

 

Around the time of this revelation, which had temporarily made me forget my prostate, I also found myself trying to work out for the umpteenth time how I was abandoned by my birth mother – well, it really wasn’t abandonment, it was really more an act of love and selflessness –  then adopted into a loving home and how I have considered since I was 23 whether to search for The Woman Who Bore Me,…yada yada yada…and, oh, is it really 3:45 a.m.?!  Besides, this title was too disjointed, too many periods, not enough commas or semi-colons and altogether too much like a John Philip Sousa song, a schizophrenically oppressive-cheerful triumphal march with monotonous meter that made me feel like I was parading straight down the length of my bed toward the foot-board to get on my knees and ask God for forgiveness for writing such a horrid account of my life.

 

Something that flows.  Something that flows.  That’s what I need, I thought.

 

How about:  In the blink of an eye.  OK.  Good cadence and nice variation of the parts of a sentence:  some nouns, articles, and prepositions, and it’s not all muscular verbs carrying tubas down Main Street.  But it sounds too much like a James Bond film, and Daniel Craig’s body is way too ripped for him to play me in the story of my life.

 

As a writer, when you have an idea, you tend to mull it over like it’s a cantaloupe melon you’re deciding on at the store.  You inspect and sniff and prod and push and then look at the other melons.  You imagine the other shoppers see you evaluating and try to look knowledgeable.  Then you think that maybe you want a carton of strawberries.  But no:  strawberries, you decide, are way too conventional.  Maybe prickly pears.  This is New York, after all, and you can try exotic things.  No: too pretentious, and you’ve never even tried prickly pears, nor would you know how to eat one.  Maybe it’s not even fruit you want, but rather salami.  You decide that it’s not a heart-healthy posture you are desiring while most others are participating in that over-rated activity called REM sleep while you figure out your destiny and epitaph but rather one that embraces the earthiness and sweat and life-is-too-short and beauty-behind-the-dumpster-poetry of William Carlos Williams and then maybe you might buy a pack of cigarettes even though you don’t smoke but it’s what writers do…  This kind of insane process goes on for you if you are a writer like me who, at somewhere around 4:30 in the morning, is still trying to decide how to chronicle his life story without being preachy or trying to impress.  Meanwhile, the other shoppers around you are filling their baskets without a thought of being watched.  Rather, they are hungry, or their families are, and this is a chore to check off the list.  They do it and are finished.  And then they go REM.

 

So you say it straight out, just like this:

 

I lived the adventure He wrote.

 

Ah.

 

That’s more like it.  So…epic.  But, alas, too earnest.  I know I’ll read this post tomorrow and kick myself for being like a schoolboy trying to get an “A” in English.

 

Frankly, after perhaps another half century of trying to figure this one out in the wee hours, my six-word memoir will probably consist of an offhand statement to a home health aide at my bedside as I die.  This aide will be a busty Jamaican woman with a contagious laugh, and she reads her Bible next to my bed, as one did next to my mother as her brained swelled from the cancer, which took her only ten weeks after she started having problems saying nouns.  Karen will be gone by then, because frankly she doesn’t sweat so much about life and death and can be plucked from the tree a whole lot easier than a guy like me who needs so much more Divine maintenance.  My sons will visit often with their wives and children and will be wonderful and supportive, but at this one moment, when I am alone with the Jamaican woman, she will be reading from 2 Samuel, and as I am prone to do, I ask her to read aloud.  She tells me about the wise woman who confronted King David about his tense relationship with his son Absalom, one of my favorite sections, and then she quotes, “But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.”

 

I smile, an act which I learned fifty years earlier takes fewer facial muscles than frowning, and I will say in a scratchy voice to her:

 

What was it keeping me awake?

 

 

 

photo:  Ames2880

Louise

[The following “droubble” (a work of fiction exactly 200 words long) was to be entered into a writing contest until I learned I needed to register on the contest website for a minimum of $7.95 per month.  I decided to put it here instead.  You are supposed to look at the photo of this man during the Great Depression and write about him.]

 

tough-times

 

 

Three realtors wanted my business.  Since times were tough, I said why of course to all of them.  Blatteis and Madison I knew from high school.  Palmer was from the northeast.  They posted their signs in the window that would have blocked Jerry Sinclair’s view of Louise walking to the Post Office every weekday morning at eight.  In her red polka dot dress.  As Cole Porter might have said, the boys and me “got a kick out of her.”  And how.  This photo was taken in the fall of 1934.  The day things changed.  I’m waiting for Fred, who said he had a potential lessee.  Said a man from Topeka had a chain of Hoover wagon retailers that was expanding and needed an office in the Mid-South.  Well, the deal went through.  I kept the property and earned the rental income.  Six years later this business converted to one that made jeeps for the Army as part of the war effort.  After that, it became a string of car dealerships.  I went into business with the lessee.  My first wife died at the close of 1949, and I married Louise.  She always said she wanted to marry a rich man.

Don’t forget the meat

I’m reading the third book in a trilogy-memoir by a fellow whose explanation of Christianity is a little like chicken noodle soup that lacks the chicken.  It’s not bad tasting soup, in and of itself, but it’s not chicken noodle soup and yet calls itself that, and most people who eat it think it is, too.