a less than idyllic summer

a profound thank you to all of you who have written messages in the past weeks, wondering about my return and an apology for not answering. i didn’t expect to be away this long and for these reasons but life seems to have its own agenda despite our hopes and dreams.

almost immediately issues in our 6 unit condo building became very divisive, a longtime self governing cooperative community is now at a dangerous crossroads. a couple is moving out and asking for an unreasonable, irrational accommodation that long and short term has the potential to threaten our personal security and finances. the short story, several of us now have to resort to taking this issue to court, which to non litigious people like Scout and myself is just beyond belief. i have been utilizing my writing skills to try to break the stalemate, but to no avail.

and as of today, off went a several page synopsis to our lawyer.

and if that was the whole of the troubles it would be enough, but unfortunately that issue has taken a distant back seat to what we learned in a two day span. Scout’s favorite aunt who is our neighbor on the farm and who immediately welcomed my daughter and i into this new family, always had a gift for Cbear on holidays and treated her as a blood grandchild, aunt shirley has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. the following day after some routine tests for fatigue at the hospital, Scout’s dad was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer.

Bob, Scout’s dad is a very important, restorative person in my life and he and Sue, his wife have always treated me as a second son, and are the stable family i never had. i normally retreat when i have issues, i deal with them quietly and don’t make them public and writing this is very, very difficult….it makes it all too real.

we have been overwhelmed with the enormity of this news, of this new reality and i’m not sure how much more i can say right now.

Scout and i are taking alternate weekends traveling to Louisville to be there and help out, her mom needs us there as much as possible and that will be our schedule for the foreseeable future. our annual houseboat trip is coming up next week, Bob is bound and determined to make this trip, and we are equally determined to make it happen. i did some of my best writing on the trip last year, it has always been a very special place for us all.
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night water stillness
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the best time of day,

when I’m really awake is

when i hear the rest

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of the world asleep.

and here on this lake tonight,

trees along this cove

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are deep in their dreams.

the leaves whispered their good night’s

and vowed to rustle

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again tomorrow,

when the lake breeze comes ashore.

do fish ever sleep?

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i don’t hear them now

in this three a. m. quiet…

splashing the surface

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filling their bellies

with bugs skimming the water.

they’ll be awake soon…

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but at this moment

when the only sound I hear

are these words i write,

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i count my blessings

and thank the universe for

night water stillness.

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tomatoes, holly creek 007.

time to step away…

With the the weather finally getting warm, I hear our farm calling my name so it’s time for a windows down, head clearing road trip to enjoy some of what I’ve been hoping for. This long awaited trip is precisely what this winter worn writer needs to reinvigorate these weary eyes. The farm has always been a creatively fertile environment, my secret writer’s retreat…but seeds of a different sort will be sown this year.

Some of you may know I was a landscape designer for 10 years and with the 2 year renovation of the 100 year old house nearly complete, it’s time to turn my attention to the neglected landscape. The house sits on a 3 acre clearing amid 100 acres of crops, so it’s time now the entire property, the walkways, patio, foundation plantings and garden beds get a complete redesign. I’ve designed some very large properties in Chicago, but never one this size: 3 acre parcels don’t exist.

I’m very excited to get started, so my attention will be focused on this and other projects for at least the next few weeks. There is no internet service on the farm, a detail I sometimes complain about and vow to correct. But there are times like now, when I just need to step away from the digital world for a while and get my hands in the dirt again, wipe some real sweat from my brow, enjoy the sunset and stars and listen to the heartbeat of the soil.

ty as always for your creativity, friendship and support,
and I’ll catch up with everyone when I return.

until then…Happy Writing!

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‘such a pretty pretty boy!’

dear friends…a short story in three parts,
while i continue working on the 3 co write poems.
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‘such a pretty pretty boy!’
part 1
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I would soon find out as my back glued tight against the living room wall, right next to the tall bird cage where a too close crowd waited in narrow eyed but hushed anticipation, I had the best seat in the house.

‘Oh, you’re such a pretty boy. Pretty Boy… Pretty Boy…
you’re such a pretty pretty boy!’

In her familiar sing song melody, my mom chirped her song to our blue and white, precocious and quite talkative parakeet Pretty Boy. I’d heard him repeat the words plenty of times, his head bobbing and weaving as he scuttled from side to side along his wooden perch. That a bird could talk as clearly as Pretty Boy did, was an endless source of fascination to this 5 year old.

‘Pretty Boy..Pretty Boy…such a pretty pretty boy!’

On queue and just as mom had promised, Pretty Boy rattled off his happy monologue to the delight of everyone,

‘Ohhhh’
‘Isn’t that cute?’
‘I’ve never heard a bird talk like that!’

With all the oohs and ahhs from the crowd and staring at his little round mirror, Pretty Boy was very animated and quite taken with himself,

‘Pretty Boy..Pretty Boy…such a pretty pretty boy!’

“Does he say anything else?’

And mom who was beaming now,

“Oh sure, he says lots of things!’

This was no easy crowd to please. It was the first time all my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents on my father’s Italian side of our family had en masse descended upon our suddenly smallish house,
and smiling seemed to be a foreign concept to them.

Leaning forward and stacked three deep in a semi circle around the cage…and me, I was suffocating and beginning to hyper ventilate. I needed to escape but there was simply no escaping this wall of largish, olive skinned humans with their dark eyes and darker hair. It was my first experience of a claustrophobia I still suffer from today.

Then suddenly, unprompted and as if on queue to save me, Pretty Boy still preening from the attention squawked an unmistakeable string of,

“God damn shit…God damn shit…God damn shit!’

I’d never seen so many people move simultaneously like this group did, as if the epicenter of an 8.2 earthquake shuddered just below our little dining room jolting everyone backwards and off the floor. And no one jumped higher than my wide hipped grandmother. She landed with such a thud, her low black heels left divots in the pine floor.

I caught my breath as there was instantly more air to breath, but I was certainly the only person experiencing any sense of relief in the sudden vacuum of silence, in that improbable, unforeseeable and unforgettable moment. And with the best seat in the house, I watched the ensuing family drama all unfold.

‘such a pretty pretty boy!’ pt.2

I stood there as confused as a kid could be.

My uncles rushed to the aid of my grandfather while he struggled in vain to steady the still listing ship that was my grandmother’s bulky frame; like asking a stalk of corn to brace a tipping fire hydrant.

The science of leverage was awkwardly defining itself in real time.

He was all of 6’4″, kind and gentle as any person you’d ever meet, she was a wide stump of a woman with an iced grey, evil dead eyed stare that could bend an I-beam and bring concrete to tears. And when she narrowed that laser like gaze occasionally turning her brand of affection towards me, the overly potent mixture of her rose scented perfume and stinging pain screaming from my cheek as she twisted it with a little too much pleasure….well, this kid learned early to keep a safe distance from that thumb and forefinger.

With the men shoring up the aft, pocketbooks snapped open and out came the doily edged hankies dotting the sweat now appearing on my grandmother’s brow and rouged cheeks. Dumfounded, I watched as my aunts dutifully smoothed away the upset in her rose printed sundress, surrounding her like handmaidens to a queen. I still didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. On the receiving end of my father’s own icy dead eyed stare, mom was admonishing Pretty Boy but she seemed as confused as I was. Neither of us had ever heard Pretty Boy say those words before.

I had no clue know what they even meant.

And there we all stood, suspended in an uncomfortable void of inaction, afraid to move or say a single word hoping this unpleasant catastrophe had finally subsided, hoping we could move on to the buffet to fill our bellies and forget it ever happened.

“God damn shit…God damn shit…God damn shit!’

Pretty Boy, still bobbing and weaving along his perch and clear as day suddenly pierced the silence and proudly squawked another string of expletives to the crowd. But if the huge gasp that heaved deep from my grandmother’s innards were any clue as to how this all would end, you would have thought those three words like three poisoned arrows…. were aimed directly at her.

Unsteady again as one hand reached instinctively for the rosary beads in one of her two side pockets while the other found a gaudy gold crucifix on the heavy chain around her neck, up rolled her eyeballs as my grandmother began to breathlessly recite a mournful monologue of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s in her native Italian. She held the crucifix in such a white knuckle grip pointing it at Pretty Boy as if Lucifer himself, sat on that perch cloaked in blue and white feathers.

Oh, it was quite the dramatic scene as she turned on her heels and thumped towards the door with my poor grandfather behind her gesticulating, endlessly apologizing with that familiar expression
on his face,

whattamigonnado,’youknowhowsheis, howdidiendupwiththiswoman’

the helplessness that was forever creased in his forehead.

This act mercifully came to its conclusion as the rest of the family followed the mighty matriarch, heads down and mumbling as they corralled their children and shuffled out the door.

It was the last time any of them would ever visit our house.
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Being the early riser it was my chore to remove the cover from Pretty Boy’s cage. I’d fill his seed and water containers and begin his daily chatter while teaching him some of my own sing song phrases.

‘Here comes the sun…here comes the sun….here comes the sun’,

lifted from the title of my favorite Richie Haven’s song playing constantly on the AM radio station that summer of ’67. Leaning close to the cage, I would let my waist length hair sift through the cage until it covered his head. Nibbling the ends a little. he waited for me to lift his veil of hair and repeat,

‘Here comes the sun …here comes the sun…here comes the sun.’

Our silly version of peekaboo. But Pretty Boy wasn’t waiting for me on the familiar perch near his little mirror that morning.

‘such a pretty pretty boy’ Conclusion

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for Mom
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And for that entire summer Pretty Boy’s empty cage remained where it had always been, aside one of the two near floor to ceiling, lead glass windows at the rear of our narrow railroad apartment.

The low sills provided an easy view of the wall of four story tenements and scruffy yards, and easier access to the wrought iron fire escapes dangling off the rear of every building. This view, even on the sunniest of days in monotone brown tar shingles, the imposing black painted, zigzagging iron bars and early shadows left little to be hopeful about; like the Escher engraving of the steps to nowhere.

Divorce changes lives in a hurry. But this neighborhood we moved to, tucked away in a forgotten corner of Brooklyn was lifetimes removed from the wide open and manicured green lawns and the single family life we once lived.

The dimming memories felt like someone else’s lucky dreams.

Yet looking back now, sitting on that window sill visiting with Pretty Boy is where I spent much of my time when I was home. Studying the blue intricate beauty of his feathers was such a refreshing anomaly to eyes aching for color, his endless banter one of the few cheerful constants in my already unsteady life. So it really shouldn’t have surprised me that seeing those blue feathers lying so still and quiet, nestled amongst the thin strips of Daily News lining the tray of his cage was enough to bring this 15 year old man boy to tears.

But it did. I struggled to keep my crying quiet, trying to decipher the unwelcome silence from his cage, wrestling with another inexplicable, here one day not here the next, loss. Yet another loss I was unprepared to absorb.

Mom and I sat at the kitchen table and reminisced about Pretty Boy, reminding each other of memories we had forgotten while she breathed in long slow drags of BelAir smokes and longer purposeful chugs of her favorite Schaefer beer. Cradling Pretty Boy in her hands, her chest rising in deep exhales and her lips trembling a little she recalled that fateful day Pretty Boy came home.

Back in the day, in the Long Island town of Hempstead where we lived then, all the shopping centers had a Woolworth store, nicknamed the five and dime. It was a huge place that had miles of aisles filled with toys, cards, tape, ribbons and all the handy little daily items, and right in the middle of the store was their popular pet department.

Mom and I always made a bee line there to see the rabbits, hamsters and turtles and take in the songs and squawks of the yellow canaries and various colored parakeets for sale. All these cute, first kid pets had a high turnover rate, but mom had her eye on one blue parakeet that lingered for months. And despite his cheerleading, the salesman could never convince anyone to take this one bird home.

Pretty Boy was not a very pretty bird, despite his eventual name.

Smaller than the other birds his age, he was missing feathers and wore a pronounced scar on the white crown of his forehead. So mom, ever the devoted animal lover and champion of underdogs decided that day this unloved orphan was coming home with us. The salesman was so ecstatic, he discounted everything we needed to bring him home.

The sales receipt read Parakeet…..99 cents.

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It was only 10am as I watched the ashtray overflow with spent buts and another can of Schaefer bit the dust too. It became clear as I got older that Mom had quite the potty mouth. Pretty Boy only repeated what he heard, a loyal confidant when no one else was there to listen.

I heard a few, very choice words about my grandmother that morning.

Time has a way of dulling the sharp edges of our pain, and karma…well, it has it’s own mysterious timetable administering our just rewards. My grandmother was a hateful woman whose own psychosis and prejudice eventually alienated most of her sons too, there were very few tears shed from the few people that attended her funeral when she died.

It was hard not to notice that familiar warm spark return to her sienna brown eyes the more mom and I talked, that free spirited Irish spunk that was so much of her charm, and despite all she would eventually overcome in a life that never resembled her early romantic dreams, she always retained an empathy for all things living. Mom was a survivor, she persevered, she always did the right thing as best she could.

I’m grateful for inheriting the very best of who she was.

I watched her meticulously wrap Pretty Boy’s blue body in Saran Wrap, tearing thin strips of Daily News to line the cardboard match box he would be buried in. We would have a proper funeral for our little friend. And as she finished taping the edges with her usual care, she looked up mischievously making sure she caught my eye and whispered,

‘God damn shit…God damn shit… God damn shit.’

We both howled with laughter at the image of Pretty Boy thankfully chasing the wicked witch out of our lives that day, shaking our heads in awe that a little .99 bird had so much say in so many lives.

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As much as this piece was intended to be written about Pretty Boy, the deeper I delved into the writing I realized the story was as much about my mom. So it only seemed fitting on this of all days, unplanned as it was to devote this conclusion to her. Somethings work out the way they should, somewhere mom is reading this story about our Pretty Boy, and

somewhere she’s flashing that impish grin….

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click to enlarge

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms today!

underneath below…Haiku/ Tanka

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i have known more pain

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than i can hope to forget,

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yet…i look skyward.
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these eyes collect joy,
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like a jewel thief stealing

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moments where i can.
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when the moonlit skies
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reflect more darkness than light,
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i hide behind clouds.
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this melancholy…
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it lays shallow in my lungs,
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waiting to exhale.
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battered and lonely,
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you found me once on the shore…
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but i crash in waves…
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underneath below
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the undertow i create
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in amniotic
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silence i know all too well,
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a slave to the familiar.
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tell me… stars have life,

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find me… whenever i hide.

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underneath…

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below.
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the plaintive calls

in this temporary lull…

in the stall that passes for a quiet pause…

the sigh between stoplights winking…

through another relentless rumbling evening rush,
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i can hear the faint… the plaintive calls.

like memories echoing down narrow windowed canyon walls

a slow whitened silhouette a blur above rooftops,

entrails across the smoke dark shroud of sky.
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a lone seagull…

aloft in her weightless circles calling…

pleading our cause that carnivorous Winter release

it’s talon grip on our weathered psyches.
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this colossal metropolis

frayed and weary along its steely margins,

holding a collective breath praying for relief

for signs our resolve has slain the beast.
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to be home… and warm is a primal lure

and cars have little patience for an inconvenient reverie,

but i have witnessed Spring’s first inland gull

and believe her plea was not in vain.
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heartened and invigorated now,

windows down i invite the viper wind

to hiss his last stinging breaths on my skin

and tangle my hair as i drive.