Archive for February, 2020

In My Room

February 26, 2020 Leave a comment

Spotify playlist is churning in the corner of my home office. The end of a long day.

The Beach Boys. “In My Room”.

There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room

IMG_0024I’ve always needed my own space. My own room. Close the door. Read. Put my feet up. Watch. Listen. Doze. Think. Write. Surrounded by the things that make me the most comfortable. My books and CDs. An irish walking stick (my shillelagh). Tablets crammed with lyrics. My favorite green lamp and an engraved clock carved into anthracite coal. A Pittsburgh Steelers terrible towel. A Moravian College towel. An old golfing trophy. Family photos. Large frame portraits of a stunning Irish abbey, and one of Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by various posters from past musical and theatrical pursuits. A world atlas. A map of Ireland. Our family crest. A copy of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. My guitars. a Who coffee mug. A Quadrophenia poster. A Bob Marley tapestry. A new 4 track recorder that I never learned how to use. A map of the coal seams under Scranton. A beat up couch. A portable space heater. Two small desks back to back. Drawers are filled with trinkets and cards given to me by my kids over the years. The purple heart of the now deceased husband of a childhood neighbor sits alone on a shelf. A brown swivel chair. An Amazon echo that my daughter just passed down to me sits on the right corner of the desk, ready for instructions that I don’t yet know how to give. The room is gleefully messy, but my wife isn’t ashamed when I welcome the rare visitor in, which tells me it’s not that bad.

There’s no window, and that’s the way I like it. I don’t want to look out. I don’t want anybody else able to look in.

I can hear the movement above my head. Feet on the floor. So the world goes on without me. One less thing to worry about.

As a kid I never had my own space. As a twin me and my brother shared a room smaller than the one I’m describing, and made do with bunk-beds. Hell, my father was a newspaperman and frequently wrote at home, and he didn’t have a space to retreat to. He’d sit at the dining room table at his Underwood typewriter and bash away as us 6 kids created chaos around him. Or he’d sit on the couch with a legal pad, TV blaring, and tear through page after page in his indecipherable scrawl (even he couldn’t read if after the fact). The only thing more chaotic than our house was the Scranton Times newsroom in those olden days, so not having 4 walls to cover himself with didn’t bother him at all. He could block it all out. But for whatever reason, I could not. I needed the barriers.

So I’d build my own. With blankets and small tables and piles of pillows, or with panels of wood from the garage that I could lean against each other to create some sort of makeshift room. I’d use the end tables saved for drinks when my parent’s had company over….and that would be my makeshift writing desk, and I’d sit and dream and write of whatever I was sure I would never share with anybody else ever.

There was another mass shooting today. Six more dead in Milwaukee. The story barely made a ripple with fears of a global pandemic on the rise. Our nation is woefully unprepared for the latter, and has shown a repeated, callous disregard to deal with the former. So that Beach Boys song really hit a nerve today.

But eventually we need to tear down the walls and come together. None of the dreams I can conjure up in here are gonna be worth much if we can’t agree on some sort of shared human decency when we’re inhabiting the same spaces. What Warren Zevon called “splendid isolation” may be part of the reason we’re where we are right now. Our days are like a war. Our instincts give us two options. Retreat. Or attack.

What’s missing is what folks used to do. They used to talk.

In a bit.



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February 21, 2020 Leave a comment

People will always let you down. But your dog never will.


Maxwell – 2020

Over the last 25 years we’ve had 3. Kiko, my forever best friend. Abbey, as close to perfect as a living being can be. And now Maxwell, our first boy. A lovable rogue devoted to chaos and absolute devotion. In that order.

And growing up, we had Candy.

Nobody was quite sure what kind of dog Candy was. A wild mix of some kind. Her head was way too small for the rest of her, and her graying black hair made her seem much older than her years. When chasing squirrels she’d frequently get stuck trying to wedge her rather large behind underneath the backyard fence. Her beauty was definitely in the eyes of her beholders. But she’d hold her too-small head up high and act all beautiful and not give a fiddler’s fart.

Neighborhoods were different in those days. Doors were open and everybody was outside. Kids were playing and neighbors were gossiping on front porches. Parents would chase you out of the house, and you were free to wander to and fro as long as you stayed within certain boundaries. Being able to hear your Mother calling you for dinner was critical, but other than that, you could play in the sewers for all anybody cared.

Candy lived by the same rules as the rest of us. In the mornings she’d slip out and start to wander. Everybody knew her. She might visit the neighbors. Or take a siesta under a nearby cherry tree. You’d call her and she might be in the backyard, or down the next block. But she’d always come running. Never once do I remember her getting lost, or us worrying about her excursions. She always looked both ways before crossing the street. As I said, different times.

She would troll backyards like an African predator, waiting on the aforementioned squirrels. She never even came close to catching one of course, and had such a pleasant disposition I’m not sure what should would have done if she ever did. When she was hungry she’d come back home and scratch on the back door. In the summers her pulse quickened because catching the ice cream truck (Dairy Dan) became her obsession, nipping at its wheels as it drove off down the street with its bells going off. Not sure what her plan was in catching that either. I suspect it was all the thrill of the chase. At night she’d sit on the front stoop and doze at my Dad’s feet as he’d listen to the baseball game on the radio. Exhausted but content. Her days were filled with magical discovery, and she never met a stranger.

We took a one week family vacation ever year to the shore. My Dad would drop her off at a kennel…and on that long drive home from the beach, it was seeing her we were most looking forward to. We’d pick her up and she’d jump in the station wagon and slobber over each of us, her tail wagging so fast you could feel the breeze. Unbridled happiness. It was moments like this that always made me suspicious of anybody who didn’t have their own dog. Do you know what you’re missing? Were you dropped on your head as a child or something?

She was home the day I was born, and she lived into my teens. Not having her around was inconceivable. There was 6 kids, but she was in a category of her own.

And then all of a sudden she was old. She was getting slower. She’d given up on the squirrels and the ice cream man. But still, she loved us with a fierce devotion, asking nothing in return except a nuzzle, or to allow her to wedge under your feet as you watched TV. We pretended that she’d be here forever.

Every morning she’d make her way up from the basement where she slept. One morning she could not make it. Her back legs would not carry her. My Dad knew it was the end, and he carried her to the car for the ride to the humane society. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. I came home from school that day to…..silence. No barking or tail wagging or kisses or scratching on the back door. No seeing her through the front porch screen as we walked towards the house. The house was still full, but it felt empty. We all cried. I don’t ever remember even a discussion about replacing her. To us she was already up there on Mount Rushmore.

I don’t believe in much. But I believe that dogs make us better people. They love. And they ask for just a little of it back. They always miss us when we’re gone and revel in our return. They don’t judge. They don’t scold. They just go crazy and say “I’m sooooo glad you’re home!”

For those of us blessed with them, there’s no need to believe in angels. We know better.

In a bit..


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Childhood mornings…

February 17, 2020 Leave a comment

As a kid growing up, I can still remember those early school mornings.

With 3 sisters and 2 brothers, it was barely organized chaos.

My Dad was an early riser, so nobody needed an alarm clock. He’d just start singing. And gradually we’d all come to life, in the order we were born. If Pop singing along to something on WARM radio’s Harry West show didn’t do the trick, he’d issue a few stern individual warnings, and if that didn’t work you’d got a cup of cold water in the face. It was as effective as a cattle-prod. He didn’t need this nuclear option much, but he could be trigger-happy, so you re-dozed at your peril. We had the kind of heat that made the pipes sound like somebody was hitting them with a hammer, so that was a welcome sound on cold winter mornings. You knew the radiators were pumping, and you could lay your school clothes on top of them for a few minutes, which made dressing a little easier.

We had one bathroom upstairs, and one in the basement that nobody really used. Mostly we showered the night before. If I needed a shower in the morning, I’d have to wake up before the house moved to jump the line…..and I could go into the basement and be alone with the hot water and my thoughts. You had to be careful not to sit down in there and fall asleep though…..because it was so small you’d be covering the drain with your butt and the water would flood over the top of the stall and soak the carpet. A tricky situation, this. Even small comforts were littered with land mines.

Breakfast consisted of some Cheerios with mounds of sugar poured on top of it (our way of getting around our Mom’s ban on “sugar cereals” like Fruit Loops or Captain Crunch). Every boy in our class wore sneakers to school (there was no rule against it) but my Mom thought sneakers in school were an abomination so I’d have to shove a pair in my book bag and change into them when I got around the corner and out of sight. Then I’d have to change back into my shoes before coming back home. It was never easy navigating the terrors of adolescence, that I can tell you.

ST MARY_CROP_cropAt one point, maybe when me and my brother were in 5th grade, being an altar boy became a thing. Just about every kid in the class volunteered, even the ones you knew were heathens or closet Presbyterians. Word was out that you could make $10 or more serving a funeral or a wedding….and that sure beat shoveling snow for old ladies or cutting somebody’s grass in the wretched heat for a few singles and a glass of watered down iced tea. You could pick your own partner (but since I had a twin it was just assumed….and that was that)… these friends would pair up with each other. You’d see their names in the bulletin scheduled for the M-W-F 7am weekday mass and everybody knew there was no way they were gonna show up because they hadn’t been to actual mass since they got their head dunked when they were born and nobody got paid for the regular masses anyway. But because my father was a serious Catholic he refused to allow us to miss, so eventually we always got assigned the early mass because we were the only ones who would show up. A valuable lesson for later life, this. 

He’d take us, and attend the mass himself. He was proud, you could tell. He knew his kids weren’t abandoning the priest up there to wash all the dishes and ring that bell himself like those other mercenaries.

(I can tell you there is nothing more depressing than pulling on unwashed ill-fitting community altar boy clothing from a large closet while it was still dark outside. But we showed up, lit and then extinguished the candles with great aplomb, and didn’t drop stuff the priest handed to us. It was a low bar. But disappoint my father? Never.)

We lasted maybe 2 years. By 8th grade you’ve outgrown the cassocks in the closet and start to look silly up there, like you’re wearing a short skirt. One of my last gigs was a stations of the cross thing…..but the young Priest was a huge NBA basketball fan and was desperate to make it out of there in time for tip-off. So instead of reading the (long, drawn out) canned prayers (and awaiting the canned responses) at each station, he just made up his own (no responses required) and practically dragged us along with him from place to place. He skipped one of the “Jesus fell” stations by winking and whispering to us “let’s not pile on, right boys?”

I think he was done in 20 minutes. Soon after he left the priesthood and married a nun. This gave me hope for the future. I hope he still has his priorities in order.

My Dad remained devoted to his Catholic faith his entire life. He pretended that all his kids went to weekly mass and we made that easy by never telling him otherwise. One day before he got sick we were in my car and Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag” was playing on the stereo and I thought “oh shit”….but let it go….

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playin’ it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!

…and he laughed as hard as I’d ever heard him laugh and I knew he knew and it was fine. “Just make sure you’re all with me” he’d say. And I’d say “I’m going wherever you’re going….’cause you taught me everything I know…”

I don’t enjoy mornings now any more than I did then. But I miss being woken up by my Dad’s wobbly singing voice. I miss the Harry West Show on WARM radio….and the clanging pipes and the manually sweetened Cheerios. I miss the warmth of my childhood on the coldest days of the year. I miss my Mom and Dad and that house on North Webster Avenue, where dreams rarely came true but nobody thought less of you for having them.

In a bit..


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The bed in the kitchen….

February 13, 2020 1 comment

carbondale0-6bd216e55056a36_6bd21820-5056-a36a-07949c8d0b044e97It’s one of my earliest memories. My father gathering the 6 of us kids into the station wagon (my twin brother and I and my youngest sister wedged in the back-back with the fold up seats on top of the spare tires) on a Sunday afternoon. And then the 30 minute drive to Carbondale, where Dad grew up. My grandfather was there, sharing a house with his 3 spinster (that’s what they were called in those less delicate days) sisters. It was very snow-white-ish, as one was only slightly less miserable than the next. Even at my young age it wasn’t hard to imagine why they never married.

My grandfather was dying on those Sunday afternoons. Cancer grabbed him and wouldn’t let go, so eventually they moved his bed downstairs into the kitchen so we could spend some time with him. My Dad and his brother would take turns shaving him, attending to his needs. His sisters were grateful for the break I suspect, although you’d never know it because to them anything other than miserableness was a sign of weakness. They could cook like demons though, and I can still smell the roast beef and mashed potatoes, and the cakes and cookies and all that stuff that folks used to do on Sunday’s that nobody does anymore because we’re too busy lying around on our smart phones complaining that things aren’t like they used to be.

Each kid would get a silver dollar each week. That was my grandfather’s thing. He must have had a room filled with them. My sister was the most greedy, and as my grandfather was a colossal ball-buster, he’d always pretend to run out of coins when it was her turn. Then she’d cry and he’d laugh and his sisters would call him all kinds of evil and eventually he’d relent and she’d go away happy. To me and my brother he might do the disappearing coin in the ear trick, and we’d be incredulous every time. I can’t remember his face. The one in my head I know I got from photos. I just remember the bed….and the coins…..and the smells. And eventually we’d be allowed to escape the grown-ups and go upstairs and watch television. My Dad and his brother would crack open some Genny Cream Ales, and sit with their father and they’d all pretend that nothing at all was wrong, which is what you did when you were Irish.

I was too young. I had nothing to compare any of this too. True, I’d never known anybody who had a bed in their kitchen, but maybe that’s just what old people did. I never knew anybody who had died. I guess I figured it would always be like this. We’d spend our Sunday’s here and eat roast beef and collect silver dollars forever.

And then we arrived one week and the bed was gone. And there was no more silver dollars. I’m sure my father explained it all to us, but I don’t remember a thing. I don’t remember the wake or the funeral. I just remember feeling sad because what we’d had, we would not have anymore. The trips became fewer and fewer, and eventually stopped altogether. The spinsters died like dominoes. The house was sold. This was what happened when people died, and I didn’t like it one bit.

And then my Uncle Chick, who was married to my mother’s sister Jayne, all of a sudden he had a bed in the kitchen too. I can remember it against the far wall wedged underneath the window. And I can’t remember his face either now, but I knew that one day soon we’d come visit the house in Dalton and he’d be gone too, because that’s what happened to old people who had beds in their kitchens. And it came to pass. Just like I thought it would. And then suddenly I wasn’t a kid anymore.

And now I see how brave these men were. They knew they were dying, but refused to be hidden away. If the kitchen was where everybody was gonna gather to smoke and drink and eat and laugh and be a family, well then that’s where they were gonna be. Raging against the dying of the light while smelling the roast beef.

So drag this damn bed down the steps and set it up near the window so I can get some sun and make it close to the fridge because I want to be able to offer my guests some Genny Cream Ale for they’re likely to be parched after that long drive. And while they’re at it I’ll have one too. One for the road as it were. And when I die put my picture on the mantle….but make sure it’s one where I’m wearing my good suit. It’s not hard to spot because it’s the one I was buried in. I want to keep my eye on all of you, but I want to look good doing it. And don’t worry kid. If you were too young to remember my face, just know this. I’ll always remember yours.

In a bit..


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Writing is such a strange thing…

February 9, 2020 Leave a comment

Writing is such a strange thing.

writingA terror-filled time mostly spent staring at an empty space…as you re-fill your tank with the self-loathing and self-doubt you managed to jettison the last time you wrote something you were pleased with.

Oh, and you don’t make money at it either.

Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

I’m not sure why we do it. There are days when it can take me hours to write 100 acceptable words. Or days to write a decent verse. We start and stop. Start and get distracted by a piece of lint on the floor, or the jangling collar of the dog. There might be errands that we can talk ourselves into, or a car door slam that requires investigation. A mail delivery can torpedo an entire day.

And then some days… just flows. It’s rare, but it happens. At times like these I’m reminded of Lincoln’s quote of the Mississippi river after the Union won the battle of Vicksburg….””The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

There’s a Lincoln quote for everything boys and girls. Trust me.

Even after years of doing this, I struggle with the basic math. Shelby Foote wrote his mammoth 3 volume history of the Civil War (speaking of Lincoln), 500 words at a time. In longhand. Five hundred words each day. That’s less than the front and back of a piece of loose-leaf paper. When you break it down that way, what seems impossible is just putting one foot in front of the other.

Stephen King churns out books at a rate of one or more a year. He writes 365 days a year, even on Christmas. But rarely for more than a few hours…..and he produces about 1000 words a day. Do the math. The average longish novel is about 90,000 words.

So, could I write a novel every year? No. But if I wrote 250 words a day for an entire year, guess what that equals? I can’t run a marathon….but give me enough time and I’ll eventually cover the same ground. It’s all a matter of how you look at things.

Of course it helps to be as good a writer as King, but I’m talking the mechanics of the craft right now. The actual ass-in-the-seat time. King is King because he’s better than most. But he also spends less time getting distracted by the lint on the floor. So he’s staring at an empty space a lot less than the rest of us mortals. He works harder. Foote mentioned that it took him 4 times longer to write his history of the Civil War than it took the combatants to actually fight it. But all those sheets of paper added up…..

Now on to quality.

Here’s where it gets dicey. Become some days the spigot opens and the words flow, and then you sit back later and realize you’ve been belching up shit all day long. I’ve had many days when I went to bed very content, knowing I’d written 2 songs! And then morning comes and I realize nobody is every gonna hear either one because they suck ass. Quantity is not quality.

But then again, a blank page is neither.

There’s a line I think. The best stuff almost always takes time. (There’s exceptions of course. Keith Richards wrote “Gimme Shelter” in 20 minutes. But he’s Keith Richards and we’re not. So….) But not too much time. There’s rescuing, and then there’s fruitless attempts at resuscitation. Sometimes words need to be put out of their misery. Write it. Look it over. Read it. Rewrite it. Look it over. Read it. Does it still suck? Then throw it away.  If the idea you have is a good one, you can generally carve something out of it that resists the urge to hit the delete button. Most bad songs and bad pieces of writing have fundamentally flawed premises to begin with. That is, the idea that kick started the process was dead on arrival.

And so onward I go. Words in my head all the time, but the kind that resist finding their way to paper. Even this insignificant little blog post (more words than a Shelby Foote day!) has dripped tortuously slow from my fingers. But it’s been worth it. You have to shake the tree as much as possible. You never know what might fall out of it.

“They can’t all be steak, kid.” That was the advice my father gave to a young newspaper columnist. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard.

There’s a second part to it though.

“But you still gotta eat.”

And once again….a Lincoln quote..

“Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind through the eye, is the great invention of the world…enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space.”

So there.

In a bit..


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My earliest memory

February 4, 2020 1 comment

“What is your earliest memory as a child?”

Somebody asked me that recently. I hadn’t thought about this for a long time.

memorylaneI was three years old. A hospital hallway. I was on a gurney….being wheeled into surgery. My appendix had ruptured. My Mom was standing over me…..but eventually she stopped. Tears filled her eyes. And I kept moving. It dawned on me that wherever I was going, she wasn’t coming with me. I yelled for her, but she didn’t come. For the first time, I was alone.

They let me come home early (interestingly, I remember nothing of a lengthy convalescence). For Christmas. All my brothers and sisters were waiting for me. My Mom carried me into the house, with my face buried in her shoulder. And….nothing. I shut down. When she finally pried me off her…I sat with my hands around my knees on the steps, rocking back and forth, not saying anything. Resistant to all attempts to cheer me up. I don’t know why I remember this….so much that happened before and after is gone. But this remains. I’m told before all of this, I was a normal, somewhat confident and outgoing kid. But the kid who came home from the hospital was almost excruciatingly shy and insecure.

I could go full on psychoanalysis and say that moment in the hallway was some sort of trigger. A kid’s brain’s way of drawing a line in the sand and saying….”this is the way things are going to be from now on”, and re-wiring itself accordingly.

But of course it wasn’t the way things would be. My Mother wasn’t perfect, but she was damn close. She always had my back. For the rest of her life. But something ruptured that day. And my personality changed. Completely. In retrospect, it’s as scary now as it was then….because it was more perception than reality. But I think it’s these moments that we do remember. It’s my earliest memory for a reason.

Eventually, we’re granted almost total recall. From our teens on we remember the good, the bad, and the ugly. Before that, it’s snippets like what I’ve outlined above.

What my father called “bits and pieces”.

The kid who shit his pants in first grade. The time I accidentally tripped the 3rd grade nun during story-time, and how she lost her shit and smacked me in the head thinking I had done it on purpose. The kid who got our entire school banned from the Philadelphia Zoo because he reached into the bird enclosure and pulled the feathers from a peacock, causing it to go into shock and die. The thrill of walking down to Pagnotti’s drugstore with enough money in my pocket to buy a 16 oz pepsi and a bag of Jax. Being goaded into jumping over an uncovered manhole and falling in and slicing my head open, necessitating a parental rescue. (A neighborhood kid took it upon himself to spray red paint periodically from the hole to our house, telling all the other kids it was a trail of my blood). And I remember feeling safe on a warm summer night, knowing the comfort of darkness had arrived, with my Father playing sentinel on the front porch, armed with Vin Scully and the Dodger game on the radio. Another day….and I had survived. I can remember these nights, desperate for them to go on and on, determined to stay awake….but always fighting a losing battle. Sleep would win, and the sun would be waiting the next day….threatening me again. In retrospect I must have been a barrel of laughs to be around.

And then there was that day in church. I had made the mistake of singing louder than the other kids in class, so was picked, with 2 other boys, to sing a solo. The song as “We Three Kings”. I had the first verse. We had to sing it while walking up the aisle, and when my cue came I opened my mouth and….nothing. My mind shut down. The words were gone. The kid behind me had verse 2, and was kicking me in the back of the leg. My face had turned blood red. I felt like I was gonna faint. And then somebody….to this day I don’t know who, whispered loud enough for me to hear….the first few lines…

We three kings of orient are, 
Bearing gifts we traverse afar

(although I didn’t know until right now that it was “traverse” and just sang “traveled”)….and from these my brain became un-stuck. And with help from a patient organist who simply went ’round in a circle, I survived to sing another day.

Yet from that day on, I require the lyrics nearby….either on a music stand or taped to the stage monitor or scribbled on my arm. Even my own lyrics. Just the first few lines…and the rest will come.

Who knows eh? Once that line in the sand is drawn……maybe it can never be wiped away.

In a bit..


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