I’ll Be There To Catch Your Soul, Cragen

I’ll be there to catch your soul, Cragen.

If only you love me, Claudia.

There is some truth in the short tale I am about to tell.  If you’re from a particular place in New York State, you will know what the true parts are.  If you love wine, you will be able to offer an informed guess on what is real and what is not.  If you appreciate creativity, art, love, tragedy and a life lived to the fullest, the main player(s) will be apparent to you.

This is a fable of a person who can be honestly described as a Renaissance Man.

Once upon a time, on the hills of the Finger Lakes of New York State, there was a moderate sized vineyard.  The wine that was produced was labelled under a well-known brand name, that of the family that owned and operated the acres of grapes.  It was quite successful.  But, after decades, the passing of the older owners led to a decreased profit margin.  Soon, in order to survive, the family had to sell out to Coke Cola, Inc.  They took charge of the winemaking.  The product quality began to lessen, as things like that do when strangers come in to tend the tender grapes.

The oldest son, Walter, grew dissatisfied and began to complain to the giant beverage company.  Nothing came of his many pleas to improve the quality of the wine that was legally being marketed under Walter’s family name.  A lesser man might have taken a buyout and walked out to start over, perhaps in California.  But Walter, who for some reason was known among his intimate circle of friends as Cragen, loved the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes.  So he did what all sons of the soil do, he bought another vineyard and began to produce his own wine…his own way.

There was a problem, though.  He could not legally use his family name of which he was so proud.  So, in the corner of his labels, he printed his name, but left a black rectangular box where his family name would be.  That was legal.

Which brings us to the labels, his labels.  As I said, Walter (Cragen) was a Renaissance Man, he could do many things and do them well.  He was an artist and he used his talent to put his own illustrations on the label.  Some were wood block prints and some were pastels and some were simple illustrations.

After several years, Walter fell in love with a woman he met at a wine-tasting event.  Her name was Claudia.  To celebrate his love for her, he drew a label depicting a man and woman sitting at a table with glasses of wine, some cheese and some crackers.  The quote at the top of this page was drawn in as speech balloons used in comic strips.

Claudia and Cragen lived a full life of travel and culture.  He bought a second home in Florida so he could ride out the harsh winters of upstate New York.  It was near his winter home that tragedy entered the lives of these two people.

Cragen was involved in a car crash.  It wasn’t minor.  It left him a paraplegic.  This once robust man, full of energy, creativity and life, was not bound to a wheelchair.

Did that show Cragen down?  Well, probably a bit, but he went on to gain enough dexterity to continue to paint his labels for his wine.

Claudia passed away a few years after the accident.  Perhaps it was from a broken heart, brought on by seeing your love…your perfect love not whole, but a little broken.  Cragen mourned his loss…and that is where he began to lose interest in the things they had shared.

One afternoon, while Cragen sat in his wheelchair among the rows of grapes and the harvest was nearly over and the leaves of the trees were gold, red and scarlet, Walter saw Claudia standing some distance away.  She was beckoning him as she stood between the plantings.  Cragen grabbed the arms of his chair and stood.  He began to walk toward Claudia as she held out her arms.

Suddenly he felt himself falling…not to the ground but up and through the air.  He was falling up and then down into her waiting arms.

“I told you I would be there to catch your soul, Cragen.”

“You did love me Claudia, you did love me.”

Image

 

 

The Garden of Earthly Deletes

DeleteKey

Her email: I’m sorry about what happened.  Will you forgive me?  Can you forgive me?  Will you let me come back?

My response: No, after what u said before.  If that’s the way u want things to be then don’t come home..stay with u r mom!!

Her email: Please let’s try to work things out.  I love u.

I thought of her and her broken heart…broken so many times by so many guys.

My response: That sounds like total BS to me…but maybe we can meet at the usual place…just to talk. 

My finger wavered over the SEND key.  I hesitated.  My mind was muddy from the back-and-forth emotions of the last few hours.  I moved my hand toward the DELETE key. I thought about her feelings of remorse for a nano-second and then I punched it like I was squashing a malarial Anopheles mosquito.  I was angry at what she had said to me.  A moment passed.  I wasn’t angry anymore.  I wanted to take back the email and reword it into a plea to stay with me.  But I knew it was too late.  Once that rectangular key is pressed, what was, isn’t anymore.  It was like an erasure of a dry marker on a white board.  This momentary spike of anger I felt had vanished.

Like the final email, I had erased her.  I regretted what I had done.  I failed to stem the bleeding from her soul.  I failed her.

I sat and thought about the situation for an hour.  Then I sat down and wrote a message saying I was sorry I told her to go live with her mom.  I pushed SEND this time.  After getting a cold beer from the fridge, I sat back down at the laptop.  I read in disbelief that the email had bounced back to me.  She had closed her account.  She was unavailable.  She was gone.  I had just deleted her from my life.  She always said it would probably end like this…that I would get her out of my life, that I would erase her.  That I would delete her.  She somehow knew this was coming for a year now.  And I played into her vortex of negativity.

That damn DELETE key.  How does that work, anyway?  How can you delete something?  Where does it go?  I know it exists as pulses of digital bits, but somewhere in the server’s main frame, it must still live.

It’s one of the most basic laws of science: one cannot create or destroy matter.  And, the electrons of the digital bits that make up a simple email message, are made of matter.

So, where is that email now?  Right now at this precise second?  Where are the zillions of deleted messages?

I once read that computers can’t really erase them from existence.  What I read is that in deleting, you simply remove the address.  But the information is still out there…somewhere.  A good hacker could get them back, but I didn’t know any hackers, good or bad.

So I did the only thing I could think of doing.  I took a walk.

I wandered all over the sleeping city until the eastern sky turned pink.  It was then that I spotted the long stone wall.  I had never seen this before.  I walked up to the only door, a great wooden entrance like one would find in a castle.  I looked up.  The sky was turning blue above the twenty-foot wall of grey granite rocks.

I pushed on the door and it opened.  I stepped over the threshold.  All around me was the most amazing and beautiful garden I had ever seen.  How did this place exist without me knowing about it?  I walked along the stone-slab path.  A full minute passed before I realized that there were dozens of words hanging from the branches and flower pedals.  No, not a dozen…hundreds, thousands.  Then it all came into focus in the clear morning air.  Every plant in the garden was festooned with strings of words.  They were not on paper or tape.  They were words that formed sentences held together with some kind of invisible force.  I took one and read it:

So, wat r we doin tmrro nite??? 

I read more.  Each one was full of errors and misspoken sentiments.  Some were meaningless.  Some were pornographic.  Some were declarations of undying love.  And, some were rejections of love.  The messages of sadness and hate and anger hung like dead snakes.  They all hung like that, dead black and serpentine.

I’m not a genius by any means, but I knew that these were deleted messages.  This is where they went to spend eternity.

Everything in the garden was broken.  I could see broken engagements, hearts, marriages, affairs, souls, plans, dreams, nightmares and prayers.  Pleas to God for a healing.  But deleted when the loved one dies anyway.

All those deletes.

The little garden had morphed while my back was turned.  When I looked around, the trees and shrubs now stretched beyond the horizon.  The city had disappeared and I found myself standing in the midst of countless plants, like Dorothy’s field of poppies, that covered one rolling hill after another.  They all were festooned with deleted messages.  Uncountable in number, each message was something not sent to someone over the internet.  Most of them bore the sad, lonely and forlorn aura of a mistake made and then regretted.

But, wouldn’t a simple email correct the mistake?,  you may ask.  Well, I was proof that sometimes that does not happen so easily.  In days of old, if you put a letter into a mailbox and let it drop, it was a done deal and irretrievable.  If you then traveled to the home of the person you had sent the regretful mail, you may be confronted with an empty house.  Or, if you tried to dial-up someone to repair a wound you caused, you could be met with: “I’m sorry, that number is no longer in service”.

It all came down to the same problem.  How could one ever stop a bullet once the trigger was pulled?  How could one run to overtake an arrow that was shot, straight and true, before it struck the target?

I wanted her back and the best hope was here in the garden of deletes.  But, the task was impossible and I knew it.

Or was it?

I noticed a section of the garden where it seemed to be raining, raining new deletes. They fell onto the trees like black strips of strange snow.  If my deleted message were anywhere, wouldn’t it be where the incoming was coming in?

I walked over to that part of the garden.  I began reading the messages.  Some were paragraphs and some were chapters and some were even entire books.  I was looking for only a sentence.  But there was no way I could find it here.  I had to find another way to dress her wound.

I turned around to look for the exit.  I took a step.  There it was, hanging right before my eyes.  Without even thinking, I grabbed it and ran for the garden door.  The vast endless fields had shrunken to the little patch of flowers and trees that I had seen when I first entered.  I crumbled the message into a tight ball and threw it over the wall.  It was a mighty throw but the message made it out.  I squinted as I watched as it hit the top of the wall and bounced out.

I had successfully saved my deleted message from this garden of eternal regrets.

As I walked through the doorway, I found myself on my own street.  I lived nearby.  Putting my hands in my pockets, I walked in the direction of home.

I heard the squeal of rubber tires and the bump of a car as it hit the curb near me and came to an abrupt stop.  I turned.  There she was, clawing at the front door of her car.  She flung it open and ran straight into my arms.

“My email was slow today,” she said.  “I got your reply.  So you’ll give me another chance?  You will, won’t you?  I so love you.”

I put my arm over her shoulder and we walked back to my place, our place, as if nothing had happened.

 

 

 

The Perfect Blog

CrossRoadsPicBlog

I know with absolute certainty that he will find me.  There is no escape anywhere…ever.  And I have no one to blame but myself.

I moved from Antioch, Nebraska to New York City thinking, for a while, that there would be safety in numbers.  A face in a crowd of millions.  How foolish I was.  I should have stayed in Antioch and spent my last hours of life enjoying what I most wanted: fame and all its trappings.  Now, I could descend into the deepest mine shaft on the bloody planet and still be found.  I could spend a zillion dollars to hide at the bottom of a lunar crater…and it would only be a matter of time.  Spend another zillion on total cosmetic surgery to alter, most completely, my outward appearance?  It wouldn’t help to delay matters for a nano-second.  He would see straight into my soul and know me.

So, who do you think I’m running from?  A mafia hit-man?  Nonsense.  A plague?  Ridiculous.  Death?  Good guess, but I’m smart enough to know we all are going to die.  That’s for certain.  But for what I’ve done, mere death is just the prologue of a play that will be staged until the end of time.

All this for violating one of the Cardinal Sins.  Lust? Been there, done that.  Avarice? I’m an expert.  Gluttony?  Not really an issue, I’m fine with my weight, for a man my age.  Greed? Bingo!  Yes indeed, I wanted it all and then some.  But when you play those kind of games, and dance to that kind of music, you have to pay the piper at the end of the night.

I was well on my way with the talent the good Lord gave me.  I’m a blogger, you see, and I wanted to be the best…not just a contender.  I wanted to be the Mick Jagger of blogs.

You may not know this (if you’re not a blogger, yourself) but we are like rock stars.  There are groupies out there reading our blogs and finding ways to get close to us.  Being a super blogger is light-years ahead of that Nobel thing.  The groupies would email me comments and emails with not-so-subtle messages of what they could do for me.  Every man dreams of that kind of attention.  I’ve received emails sent by readers with internet names like KewpieDoll21, DawnOnU22, SmokinChick25 and SuzieUNameIt666.  And when I opened and read their messages, I could smell Jasmine, Pachouli or Rose Water right through the monitor.

I don’t know how much time I have, so I’ll tell my story to you with haste.  No offense, but I may have to leave abruptly.

My mind was working 24/7 on blog ideas.  I experimented with various styles, different voices and unsettling paces of narrative.  I was growing more skillful with each post.  Some of my blogs were extraordinary, if I do say so myself.  And I had the numbers to prove it.  My Twitter followers grew, my Klout score climbed like a bull market graph on Wall Street.  My Facebook friends were getting in line to have me “friend” them.  My stats, as shown in bar graph form on WordPress, looked like the Manhattan skyline.

Some of my blogs became legendary.  My most popular, in no order, were “The Cat Groomer”, “The Chimney Sweeps of Cincinnati”, “Alpha Males of Coney Island”, “The Urban Legends of Dental Floss” and the groundbreaking, “Hemochromatosis: The NASA Coverup”.

I won “Blogger of the Year” award three times.  Hollywood left messages on my smart phone asking for the rights to film some of my posts.  I guess it was a heady time, I wouldn’t know, my head was in the clouds enjoying the view from the top.

But I wanted more.  I wanted, no, needed more followers.  I wanted my Klout score to be higher than Obama and Justin Bieber.  I wanted it to explode and go over 100.

Ideas kept flooding my brain.  I couldn’t stop.

And then it stopped.

I awoke one crisp autumn day and headed to my MacBook Pro.  After four minutes of looking at my reflection on the blue/grey screen, I realized that I had no ideas.  I didn’t panic at first.  I took a walk stopping only once to stare at a dazzling red maple tree.  I headed back to the house, slowing down to smell a fading rose.

Five hours later the ugly truth hit me hard, like the time I asked a bar maid to please open my bottle of Bud Lite with her cleavage.  The bleeding stopped in about six hours and the number of stitches equalled my age.  But I wasn’t facing a serving girl this time.  I was facing something far more serious and harder to control.

I had bloggers block.

After a few days, my Klout scored dropped by ten points, my Twitter followers began to slip away, as did my Facebook friends.  My bar graphs on WordPress began to look less like Manhattan towers and more like a cheap motel in Waco, Texas.

I went to church and lit candles, not for the memory of my long deceased family members, but for ideas.  I sat in a dimly lit booth of a dusty strip club with my pencil and paper and waited for an idea…a grain of something.  All I got from the night was a bill for six Coors and two shots of schnapps (peppermint).

My spirits began to darken.  I grew listless.  I was restless and agitated and depressed and angry.  So I took a walk.

I passed under the last street lamp (there were only three in this town) and walked along the road.  Even in the dark, I could sense the clouds were building.  Then came a blinding flash-bulb of lightning and a clap of thunder that sounded so close that my hair stood up with the static and my ears began to ring.

I reached the crossroads and stopped.  I took a leak behind a small tree and then found a small dirt mound to sit on.  The rain was holding itself in the clouds above my head, but the wind came in short sharp gusts.

Then another flash of lightning, so bright I had to close my eyes.  The thunder nearly deafened me.  When I opened my eyes, I saw that I was not alone.

At the opposite corner stood a man wearing a black rain coat and fedora.  He was staring at me.  I saw no sign of a weapon so I didn’t feel fear for my physical being.  But something dark and dirty was covering my soul like used motor oil.  He nodded to me and began to walk to my side of the road.  I had an overwhelming sense he knew me and could see deep into me.  When he got close enough, I noticed an odd odor about him.  Something familiar.  Something unpleasant.  Something foul.

“Good evening Mr. Blogger,” he said.

“Hey.”

“I hear you have some problems finding words,” he said with a voice that was a mix of Johnny Cash and Richard Burton.

How did he know this?  I told no one about my block.

“Your Klout score will soon be a single digit,” he said, without seeming to mock me. “Need help?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Things like this happen once in a while to us bloggers.  Ideas don’t grow like lawn grass, my friend.”

Despite meeting such a strange guy out here at the crossroads,the shock had worn off somewhat.  I felt more confident.

“I can help you,” he said with a certainty that took me aback.

“You want to be on top again, don’t you?” he asked.  I felt he knew the answer.

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, mister.” I said.

“I’ll make it simple for you, okay? I know you’ve had a long night and you’re tired.  I’m kind of an advisor to people like you, people who need a little boost once in a while.  I provide services and goods, whatever you need, and you need an idea.  You’d like more than one idea, but I can assure you that I can give you the only idea you’ll ever need.  It’s the ultimate idea.  I’m kind of like the genii, granting wishes.  The exception here is that I need to grant only one wish to you.  I can give you what all bloggers seek.  I can save you months of toil and stress.  My friend, I can give you the Perfect Blog.  It will be unequalled.  No one will ever, ever match it.  You will go down forever as the creator of the Most Perfect Blog in History.  But, only you and I know that I was the one who gave it to you.  What do you think?”

“Yeah, well what’s the catch?  What’s your stake in this?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call it a “catch” really, but there is a fee of sorts.  Nothing is free as you know.  As far as my “stake”, well let’s just say I’m not interested in the fame part of this thing.  I don’t need fame…of that kind.  Interested?”

“So, this ‘perfect blog’, where do I get it and how will I know it’s ‘perfect’?

“I’ll keep it simple, for you, Bailey.  After you publish the piece, I’ll guarantee you 1,000,000 followers on Twitter, they’ll have to reset the algorithms on Klout to accommodate your new standing.

Now, this is the talk I wanted to talk.  All I had to do was find out how I was going to walk the walk.

All this will happen before midnight tomorrow.  When you reach that number on Twitter, I will have fulfilled my end of the deal…and I get my payment.  You did read the fine print, I hope?”

I hadn’t.

“So, if I get you the numbers, I’ll give you about two weeks to enjoy the new position you will hold.  You will be the Greatest Blogger in the World.  Then, sometime soon after that, I’ll come to you to accept your payment.  By the way, I don’t accept American Express or any plastic for that matter.  The cost to you will not be coming from your wallet so don’t worry about being scammed for a few bucks.  That’s not the kind of person I am.  Have a good evening, Bailey.  Oh, I almost forgot, if you don’t get what I promise, our deal is off.  You can keep your numbers to enjoy.  I’ll just move on to someone else.”

“I’m a business man of sorts, so I’ll have to have your signature on this,” he said, holding a yellowed sheet of high-quality bond paper.  “Just here.”

Before I knew it, he had produced a strange-looking quill-like fountain pen.  He did something with the nib and it came to me with a drop of red ink hanging and ready to fall to the ground.

I signed.

“Just go home now and sit with your laptop…it’ll come to you like an erotic dream,” he said as he faded in the drifting mist.  I had failed to notice the fact that we were surrounded by a patch of fog as dense as cotton candy.  As I walked away, the taste in my mouth was anything but spun sugar.

I sat in front of the laptop for two hours and nothing was coming to me.  I began to drift into a neck bending nap.  I must have gone straight to REM because I began to dream.  I was standing on the steps of a great Victorian mansion.  A beautiful woman came out of the dark and climbed the stairs.  Her look, her scent and her eyes all spoke wordlessly to me.  She was inviting me up to her room.  I followed like the lap-dog I had become.  I never realized that her price for her time was to cost me so dearly.  I would wind up gazing through her keyhole while I was down on my knees.

I roused myself.  My fingers were already working away on the key board.  I proceeded to write the “Perfect Blog”.

My instincts told me that it was indeed ‘perfect’.  I put my finger on the PUBLISH button.  I knew that once I hit the key, I would be releasing a million black ravens out of my window.  I would never be able to call them back and re-cage them.

The instant I pushed PUBLISH, the room darkened…just a little, but just enough for me to notice that it was now different.  I felt like I was lying on a beach and a slick of oil from a foul leak in the seabed was washing over me.  No soap existed that was going to cut through this black fetid grease.  I was polluted beyond cleansing.  My head fell back against the leather of my Windsor chair and I fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

I awoke at noon the next day with a neck that felt so painful, I could totally relate to Linda Blair.  I checked my Klout score.  It had risen by sixty points.  I went to Twitter and saw that the number of followers had jumped to well over 900,000.  I had twelve hours until the deadline of midnight, when my deal would be fulfilled.

I went out for a beer and a tuna fish sandwich.  When I returned, my Twitter followers numbered 966,989.  I took a nap just to kill the time.  I went out for several more beers in the early evening and had a light dinner of fries, double cheeseburger and key lime pie.  When I returned to my apartment, I checked my numbers.  Twitter came with 986,666.  An hour later it was 994,567.

Okay, I think it’s time I came clean.  I’m not a stupid man.  I read widely and know a lot of interesting things about the world.  And, I’ve read enough theological books to know something about other worlds, too.  You see, I knew exactly what I was doing all along.  I knew who was offering me the sweet deal and I knew what the cost was going to be.  If you’re not with me here, read Goethe’s Faust.

If I wasn’t so smart, so very clever, I would have been in deep trouble.  But I knew how to outwit the old guy.  I would cancel my post on WordPress a few minutes before midnight thereby stopping the publication and halting the growing numbers.  Hey, over 900,000 Twitter followers?  I’m not greedy.  I’ll take what I got and run with it.  I was in a win-win situation.

So, at 11:55 pm, I clicked delete on the “Perfect Blog”.  I checked Twitter.  I was somewhat impressed to see that the total was now 999,998.  I was cutting it close but I was smarter than Mr. Darkness, himself.  I grabbed my jacket and headed for the door and intended to go out and find me some blogger groupies and get some action.

But, something went very wrong.  At the WordPress office, the guy whose job it was to obey the commands from the bloggers, was, at the stroke of midnight, in the office supply room having his way with the new intern.  By the time he got back to his control panel, it was too late.

Four seconds after I closed my apartment door,  a guy named Sid in Dover, Delaware read my blog.  That was followed by a young graduate student at NYU, named Debi and a teen hacker, who goes by the name GodFree14 from La Mesa, California.  That put me over the 1,000,000 mark.

About 8:00 am, after I closed the door behind Monica, and checked Twitter, I realized that I had lost.

I’ve been on the road for a week now.  I’m trying to find a place to hide from him but I know, in the end, that’s impossible.

He’s been right behind me for all these miles.

I can feel bits of my soul drip away like the end of an icicle’s life in spring.

 

Stourhead

Stourhead

The grounds of Stourhead in Wiltshire, England. This landscaped park includes a small village, a church, graveyard, numerous scrubs and trees of varied species and an Inn. At the far end of the lake is a “gothic” ruin, specially designed to looked many centuries old. You could sit among the ruins and contemplate the brevity of existence.

I Was a Teenage Blogger

DepressedTeen

 

The road to perdition is paved with little things.

My own dark and tragic personal story begins with little pieces of paper.  Not small bits the size of confetti that are thrown out of windows on lower Broadway during “ticker-tape” parades.  No, larger slips white or yellow ripped from notebooks, steno pads and the backsides of shopping lists…once the items are ticked off.  I have even been desperate enough to use flattened toilet paper tubes.  These are hard to use unless you have a dark pen because penciled words are difficult to read on cheap cardboard.

Besides, they don’t use ticker tape machines on Wall Street anymore, haven’t for decades.  They just use baskets of shredded documents that probably contain incriminating evidence of fraud and widespread corruption.  Once, that is used up, say during a parade of returning astronauts from Mars or the unlikely event the Mets ever win the World Series, they probably have a warehouse full of illegal aliens, working for a fraction of the minimum wage, punching out thousands of chads from discarded voter registration forms or racing forms from Hialeah.

What was this insatiable need of mine to possess these small scraps of paper?  In a word…words.  I have this uncontrollable urge to write down my every thought, however mundane, goofy or obscene.  I started by keeping these notes in used large mailing envelopes from places like the Publishers Clearing House or the IRS.  Anything would do.  Old letter envelopes, the contents of which I would toss away, only to get to the blank, whiteness of the backside.  Soon, I had shoe boxes full of these bits of my writing.  When I wrote something really interesting (which, to me, was everything), I would stash the papers under my mattress.  I did this while most boys my age were using that sacred place to hide copies of Playboy or, better yet, National Geographic (the Holy Grail, of which is the much coveted October, 1953 issue with the article “The Native Women of Tongatapu Island”).

This accumulation of my thoughts and ideas began to grow to uncontrollable dimensions.  I was running out of hiding places.

That was when it occurred to me that these gems of wisdom were really not for my eyes only.  No, the world needed to see them.  So, I began to paste these scraps onto the walls of men’s rooms and construction site walls and car repair shops.  When the mechanic was bent over to check my parents oil level, I would attach one or two of my paragraphs to the wall behind the quarts of Quaker State motor oil, close to the STP cans and the Valvoline.  Someone would read them.

I was even bold enough to sign my first name because I was proud of these short articles.

But, it didn’t stop there.  As I grew into an older teenager, I began to tell stories and not just relate my thoughts.  I was actually writing fiction, like Dickens or, later, William F. Buckley.

My fame grew.  I would walk past a bus stop and there would be small groups of people reading one of my written pieces, but that was never enough.  I had to have more.  More attention.  More glory.  More places to paste my posts.

I was getting desperate.  Only the people of the mid-sized city in the mid-west where I lived knew anything about me or the things I felt the urge to share.  Once I was nearly arrested for hanging around the soccer field of an all-female private school and opening my trench coat showing my posts super-glued to my hoodie.  This was during goalie tryouts.

Then, the techno-miracle happened.  The Internet was invented.  K-Marts began carrying personal computers.  The need to own them began to spread like swine-flu virus throughout the world.  I purchased, at no small cost, an IBM desktop.  Social networking companies began to flourish.  I set up an account with AOL and was able to send out my writings to the dozens of friends.  My network grew and soon I had several million followers.  But I was always struggling to comprehend the language of the IBM.  They were calling it a “PC”.

Then, faster than you can say Steve Jobs, an alternate universe opened up for me.  I dropped my PC faster than a high-end prostitute would do once she found out you could only afford to buy her a Miller Lite.  I bought an apple, chewed things over in my mind a few minutes, and ordered a MacIntosh.  Now I was cooking with real olive oil.

Those who understand these things and control them, began calling the posts that people were sending out, “blogs”, which I felt was odd indeed.  The very sound of the term conjured up images of “black” and “fog” or “smog”.  Dark imagery for sure.

But still, I could never get enough.  Sending photographs became possible on something some kid started called Facebook.  I began posting pictures of flower pots and kittens but felt that was going to go out of style before I could grab an audience.  I backed away from dogs and cats in creepy sleeping positions on plastic sofas and started writing more.  (I had a moment of self-doubt when, after I posted a blog that I considered a profound meditation on the eternal struggle of human inequality,  I only got 17 “likes”.  A day later, some woman from Toledo posted a photo of her potted petunia and got 1,355 “likes”.)

That self-doubt began to take over my life.  Was anyone reading my stuff?  My Twitter followers remained at a constant number of 32 for months.  I got desperate and began a long slide down to the gutter, literally.

I pawned my iMac and took a cheap room over the Hi Ho Motel along state route 47 outside of Dayton.  The motel was just across the street from Ron Stokowski’s Girlie Galore Gentlemen’s Club.  The flashing red neon sign below the owner’s name read: HOME OF THE ORIGINAL POLE DANCERS!

Friends, the few I had, would stop by to see if I needed anything.  The kitchen trash was filled with empty bottles of Night Train Express and cheap tequila.  On the little night stand next to my bed was a half-empty fifth of Jim Beam and a crumpled pack of Chesterfield’s.

I had hit rock bottom.  The only lower place for me was the first floor.  That would be the motel lobby.  Outside the lobby was the street…the street of broken dreams…the street of red lights, cheap wine and even cheaper women.  I didn’t have enough money in my pocket to afford a shot of penicillin at the local clinic.

It was raining hard the night I began to think of the railroad trestle about a mile out-of-town.  I put my trench coat on, ready for the short final walk to last stop junction…when Pinkie walked into my room.  I called her Pinkie because she wore hot pink nail polish on the nine fingers of her hands.  The hue matched her lips and eyeshadow (and her hair and tattoo and 6 inch stilettos).

“Look at you,” she said, glancing around.  “Where’s your laptop?”

I pointed to the little table with the steno pad and BIC pen.

“Hey, big guy, Mr. Steinbeck…I’m talkin’ to you.  This ain’t the way its supposed to end.  Not for a guy with talent like you got.”

I stared at her two-inch lashes.

She poured a hefty hit of Jim Beam into a plastic tumbler with a Betty Boop logo on the side, in full color.

“Take this and get a grip.”

I put the mouthful away in one swallow.

“Now, get out there.  Get back into it, big guy.  You can do it.  You got the stuff.  I was down there too, once.  Lower than low. But look at me now.  I’m a regular dancer again.  That’s cause I got the stuff, just like you got the stuff”.

I began to wonder what stuff she was talking about, but I got her drift.  She was right.  I was too young to consider myself a failure…there would be plenty of time for that when I reached my sixties.

It had stopped raining.  There was a heavy fog, like a blanket, covering the suburbs of Dayton.  I stopped under a street lamp with my trench coat draped over my shoulder.  I took off my fedora and waved at Pinkie, who was standing on the balcony of the place I once called home.

I went back to the pawn shop.  The iMac was gone!  So, I took what they had.  I walked out with a Dell.  Life doesn’t get any meaner.  Soon, I was staying in a Ramada in Bayonne, but staring at an empty computer screen.

Maybe I had wasted my youth, my good ideas, my so-called talent too soon.  Too soon and too fast.  They say you were born with only so many blogs in your heart.  My heart was empty.

I walked into the church basement with my head held high.  When my turn came, I calmly walked to the music stand that was being used as a podium.

“Hi, everyone.  My name is Patrick and I’m a blogger.”

 

Lord Knows, I Tried

 

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I believe that giving the gift of music to one’s own child is very important.  This tendency to pass onto a child is something I got from my mother.  When I was about ten years old, she signed me up for private piano lessons from a Miss Shepard, who lived next to the Presbyterian church on Main Street.  The lessons were set for 2:00 pm on Saturday, exactly the starting time for the matinee at the movie theater…just a block away.  Normally, there was a western double-feature along with about 50 cartoons.  Remember, I was ten.  Instead of joining my friends to eat enough popcorn, root-beer barrels and gummy-bears to make any kid vomit, I was waiting at Miss Shepard’s front door with the Blue Book in my hand.

I practiced everyday.  The most skilled point in my lesson’s history is teaching myself the opening bars of “Dragnet”.  Miss Shepard taught me enough to play a few notes of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.  That’s a far as it got.  Even my mother agreed.  No more money was spent on my music lessons.  And, Miss Shepard had fewer dollars to spend on that thick gardenia perfume that made my eyes water.

I’m glad she didn’t smoke.

Other than the joy of having music in your life, at your finger tips, so to speak, was that if you got good enough, it could become a way to make some extra cash when you were older.

So, when my son, Brian, was born, I could hardly wait to get him lessons…in anything.  Probably, we’d start with the piano.  But I was smart enough to not even think of scheduling class at 2:00 pm on a Saturday.  I thought if everything else failed for him, he could play at the Kit Kat Lounge at the Ramada Inn just outside of Scranton.  He would have an oversized brandy snifter on his piano that would be filled with $5 and $10 bills and people calling out for another rendition of “Feelings” or “I Did It My Way”.  He would be set for life.

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When the time came, he said he wasn’t interested in learning the piano.

Undeterred, I kept making plans to bring this gift to him, like it or not.  I mentioned percussion lessons and how popular Ringo was with the chicks.  He said he never did like the sound of sticks hitting cymbals, so that was out.

My son is an adult now and lives in Queens.  On purpose.  A few years ago, I offered to buy him a small church organ I had spotted in a house restoration store in South Norwalk, CT.  These places specialized in finding out when some large structure was going to be torn down.  They would come in and disassemble certain items and resell them.  Once I found a complete altar from a razed Catholic Church. I always wanted a full size altar so I kept my eye on it.  After a few months, it was bought by some satanic cult from New Haven and I never again saw an altar for sale.

But I digress.

Brian, I said, I can get you this neat church organ for a song.  You can sit and play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (S. 565), or a little Buxtehude Toccata and Fugue in F. for Kris.  Interested?  Being in Business, he ran some numbers and came back to me with the fact that it would cost him and his girlfriend, Kris, about $110,000 to put the addition onto their apartment building in Astoria.  They also weren’t sure that the landlord would go along with the idea.  (He told me later that he was in, but Kris hated anything in the minor key.)

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Now, being a great devotee of Bob Dylan and his music, I decided I would try guitar lessons.  This was only a few years ago.  Perhaps something inside my brain would suddenly snap and music, notes, G-cleffs, chords and pitch would make sense to me.  I saw myself on our back deck playing “Forever Young” and having kayakers stop and yell: man, you’re good!  I could earn extra money playing “Kumbya” at the 10:00 am Mass at Saint Basil’s.  I soon learned that this wasn’t going to work for me.  First of all, I have large hands that are about the size of Bronko Nagurski’s, who played pro football for the Chicago Bears from 1930-37.  The neck of my guitar was made to be fretted by a nine-year-old girl.  I was going nowhere.  I was discouraged.  Then I remembered I had a son.

I decided to go straight for the jugular.

Brian, I have a guitar.  It’s not a Gibson, but it’s well made and sounds great.  With a few lessons you could be playing a little “Norwegian Wood”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, or “Malaguena”, perhaps.  Clapton gets the chicks, Brian, I said.  (Kris kicked me in the shin.)  You could turn green and die thirty years ago and still be on tour with the Stones.  You could write a rock-bio like Slash.  You could use lighter fluid and burn your electric guitar on stage, or play the National Anthem with the pick in your teeth.  It all starts with a basic acoustic guitar, though.  Interested?

He said he’d get back to me.

Then he texted me and said he didn’t have much time for the lessons.  I told him he could get the westerns and cartoons that I missed as a kid on Netflix.  He still said thanks, but no thanks.

But, I’m his father.  This is something I have to do.  So, right now I’m searching eBay for bagpipes and accordions, used, of course.

Lord knows, I have to try.

 

A Brief History of Chains and Chainmaking

Broad_chain_closeup

I am holding a very special letter in my hand right now.

But, first…

Whether we realize it or not, chains play a very important part in our lives.  Indeed, chains have, throughout history, helped to hold the very fabric of our changing civilization together.  For example, I was astounded to learn that the metal chain was first used as early as 225 BCE.  How the archeo-technologists were able to achieve the high temperatures needed for smelting iron and forging the links is a mystery to me.  I know that the use of bellows in these primitive blast-furnaces helped to drive up the temperature to extraordinary degrees, but it remains a puzzle as to how it was all accomplished.  In my daily reading of the Old and New Testament, I cannot recall a single reference to the use of a metal chain.  Ropes, yes, but not a chain as we know it.

The manner in which we use chains is also something that we seem to have completely overlooked.  There are chains in parks, gardens, ships, dog leashes and doors, but these are only about 1 percent of the total usage.  I have included a special list of various chain uses later in this essay.

The first patent taken out for a chain cable was by Phillip White, a blacksmith from Northumbria, England.  The “smithy” was the mainstay of chain making until new technology rendered it obsolete in the 1970′s.  So, here we have an unbroken link of this very useful item from 225 BCE until the latter days of the 20th century.  Chains of course are still manufactured, but giant amorphous machines and furnaces have left the old blacksmith to hand making decorative chains for sale in gift shops and craft fairs.

Another little known aspect of this very interesting industry is the role that women have played.  In the Midlands of England, which was the industrial heart of the country, women were often the forgers of mid-weight chain cables.  One such woman, a legend in her time, was Lucy Woodall.  She apprenticed for the Samuel Woodhouse & Sons of Cradley Heath.  She was 13 years old at the time and would work 12 hour shifts.  After her retirement in the 1970′s, she went on to do “podging” on rugs for charity.  Lucy died in 1979 after suffering years with arthritis. I will present here a partial list of the uses of chains:

Chainsaws, lifting chain-linked Lewis, chain drives, curb chain, door chain, key chain, lavatory chain, leg-iron chains (fetters), chain link fences anchor chains and even as musical percussion instruments heard in such works as Janacek’s From the House of the Dead.

Chains have made their way into our cultural world in other ways.  The First Gulf War had a theme song…it was Unchained Melody.  And, who among us will not feel our heart-break or a tear fall when Janis Joplin sings the blues in Ball and Chain?

Here are a few examples of the intricate and decorative designs found in some chains:

284px-Single-jack-chain      357px-Double_jack_chain     800px-Singapore_chain

 

A single jack chain                   A double jack chain                                   A particularly pretty Singapore chain

One afternoon in 1910, a woman chain maker by the name of Lydia Bare, sat on a bench to take a much-needed break.  Her rest was necessary as she was only 15 years old and had not yet gotten used to the long hours of standing and pounding her hammer.  She looked at the mound of coiled chains that represented her efforts of three days of labor.  Her mind drifted to thoughts of her sister, Molly Reagan, who was living in New York City.  She had not seen her beloved sister in several years…since Molly married Michael Reagan and them emigrated to America.  Lydia and her sister, Molly were not natives of England.  Neither was Michael.  They were all Irish.  The prospect of steady work forced them to leave Ireland and move to England.  She saw the loops of iron, hundreds of them, all linked and seemingly endless and unbroken.  She thought of writing a letter to Molly.

Lydia began to feel very sad about her life without her beloved sister.  She looked around her and saw the grime and dust that was her workplace for 12 hours everyday.  It disgusted her.  She looked at her hands remembering how soft and lovely and white they were when she was a little girl.  Now she was seeing calloused, scarred, burnt, red and puffed hands of a middle-aged woman.  Who will ever marry me?, she wondered.  Who will find me attractive?  What man would want to kiss the roughness of these hands?

Just then, a group of factory managers began to crowd in the doorway of her shop.  They were on their months tour of the various buildings of the vast mill grounds.

Lydia rose and returned to the anvil.

So, what have we here?  One of the men pointed at the coil of chains that Lydia had been producing.

She stared at the pile of iron rings.  A bad taste was filling her mouth.

These are the chains I forged here during my life, she answered.  The men smiled and filed out.  The last man glanced back from the doorway at Lydia and thought: so pretty, I wonder what her ankles look like.

Chain Lady

The only known photograph of Lydia Bare (ca 1900)

A year later, Lydia mailed her sister a long letter.  In it she described her life and her dreams.  Would it be possible, she asked at the end of the five-page letter, to come to New York and stay with her and Michael for a short time until she could find a job and a small flat to live?  Jokingly, she asked Molly if there were many Yanks who would like a nice a nice and obedient Irish lass for a wife?  As she wrote that line, Lydia thought of how much lotion she would have to use to soften her ugly hands.  At least I have an acceptable face, she thought.

Molly wrote a letter back to Lydia after holding the letter close to her heart for nearly a year.  Yes, there are too many Yank menfolk, she said, and too few women of marrying age.  Michael and I will think about this for a bit.

Michael and Molly held onto the letter for another year or so.  They held onto it when Molly took ill.  The letter went with Molly to the hospital on Blackwell’s Island when she was told by the doctors that she had contracted consumption.  Lydia’s letter was kept in a special decorated teak wood box that stayed on a table beside whatever bed she was sleeping in.  The box with the letter was in her hands when she died.

Michael took the box and a small trunk of things that were special to the life he had shared with his much-loved Molly.  He gave the box to a distant cousin for safekeeping and then walked downtown.  Thirty-five minutes later his dead body was found wedged against a pier below the Brooklyn Bridge.

Lydia waited for a reply for years.  She never learned of the fate of her sister.  She gave up hope of ever emigrating to America and finding a strapping Yank husband.  She married an iron worker from the same mill company where she worked.  He had a love for the bottle but not for poor Lydia.  One evening he beat her to death with an iron rod.  The kind of rod that would someday be turned into a chain.

The cousin, Barry, looked through the box and then tied it tightly in leather straps.  He never read the letter from Lydia.

In 1930, Barry’s son, Paul takes possession of the box upon his father’s death.  Paul loved old things and he began to read the letters that Molly had collected.  He came upon Lydia’s letter and thought it was very special in the way it described a long ago life of two girls in Ireland.  He put the letter into a new envelope and, with a note, mailed it to his fiancé, Mary, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania.  Mary read the letter and decided to stop delaying her marriage.  She and Paul were united in Matrimony in 1936.  They had four boys, the youngest being Colin.  That’s me.

Upon the passing of my father, it was left to me to go through his papers.  In an old teak wood box, still held together with leather straps, I found Lydia’s letter.

I saw it as a kind of chain letter.  It had survived many changes of hands.  No one broke the chain, not really.

That’s the letter I’m holding in my hand at this moment.  Good luck delivered it to me.

The letter reads in part:

Dear Molly, This letter is like a chain, it may have a beginning, that is me, but where it will end is something not known to us.  The links in this letter are like those of a chain, intertwined and forged close by my own hand in the furnace of heat mixed with drops of my very own sweat.  How unladylike a thing to say.  I believe that it would be unlucky if this letter were lost or destroyed.  That would be like having a ship’s anchor chain break.  The unfettered vessel would then drift away, into a storm, and eventually sink.  It is my most dearest wish that anyone who holds or reads this letter to never, never sink…for sinking is death.  Save, hide, recopy and cherish this letter and make sure it moves on through our family…so that all who are a part of the chain will live.  This letter has the weight of iron but the freedom of winged flight.  Hold on to these words of mine and you will fly.

I pondered over who to leave the letter to upon my own death.  I have a grandson, so perhaps my daughter is the one to own it.  But my son will likely be a father someday.

The choices lay coiled, like a long iron chain in a small shop in the Midlands of England.

 

[Sources: Wikipedia and "Chains and Chainmaking" by Charles Fogg.  1981 Shire Publications Ltd.]