Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Nice to Cannes Marathon

The sun, unable or unwilling to climb higher, stays low in the autumn sky; not long awake, but more patient in morning risings and evening settings. The wind howls, stripping the trees bare, clearing the streets of fallen leaves and small dogs.

There is a marathon from Nice to Cannes today. It lures thousands of runners. And because it is southern France, and already cold to the north, and seeing as how jogging is a self-indulgent sport, the runners are joined by sun-loving family, friends, wives and lovers under the guise of caring supporters, support which is easily distracted by the magnificent stores and apr├Ęs-shopping coffee, croissants, and conversation.

I take the bus from Grasse to Cannes, following a raindrop that had begun its descent high in the Maritime Alps. We fly together down the mountain until my coach stops, the driver no longer able to maneuver in the heavy traffic. The raindrop falls from a cloudless sky, as if from nowhere, landing beside the bus. Other drops follow until the air is filled with winks of sunshine flying in the wind like a swarm of fireflies. Hot Macadam welcomes their arrival with a hiss of applause, celebrating the moisture's transformation into invisible humidity, a transformation that allows them to climb with the wind, riding upwards, in search of other spirits with hopes of being borne again.

The coach's progress is slow and heavy. We crawl down the boulevard, turn left, left again, and arrive at the train station. I didn't know where to go. I didn't know where the finish line was, though I had heard it was at the famous Cannes Film Festival tapis rouge. I walk against the prevailing current of pedestrians. Many had numbers attached to their chests. They were the marathon runners, the finishers heading for the trains to Nice. I follow the ant trail backwards to the finish line.

I am too late for the Kenyans. Had the winds blown them off course? I did not see Leo, either, who I had met the week earlier in Dublin and learned he would be in Nice for the race. He had been the inspiration for my sojourn, along with my 8am train from Cannes to Paris the next morning. But I never did see him, unable to recognize him in the flood of bobbing heads. Was it Leo who had told me the fast Kenyans weighed under 100 pounds? When I texted him from Cannes, he was already safely returned to his companion.

I walk back towards the train station, check into my hotel and reemerge onto the crowded sidewalks. I join the pilgrimage to the trains bound for Nice, a ride that will follow the coastline. The station is filled with men who wobble down the stairs, back and forth, their calves complaining, thinking their work was done after the 26 mile run.

The ride is short, children being admonished to put down their iPhones to appreciate the Cote d'Azur. The view is spectacular, all the more so because it is from a train, often running at water's edge. From Nice Central I wander alone, searching for the sea, following the sun as I head down Avenue Durant. The cafes are filled with yellow jerseys with jogging shoes surrounded by family and friends, all recounting the day's battles, the wins, the losses.

A sudden gust of wind and my hand jumps to my hat and I turn to protect my eyes. A high-pitched tinkling sound rides above the rumble of wind in my ears. The breaking glass draws my attention to the surprised faces of patrons at the sidewalk tables, their expressions turning to disbelief as another place-setting of wine glasses are toppled by the wind, rolling, slipping over the edge of the white tablecloth, shattering, scattering their remains at the feet of Adidas and Avia shoes.

The waiter is unperturbed. Perhaps this scene is played out every year, tourists eating outside in a futile attempt to stretch summer into fall. They are not American tourists, though there is the occasional smattering of nasal English. Most are continental tourists. For it is off season, too late for le grand voyage, and only a long weekend in November, Armistice Day, a holiday not even celebrated by many countries in Europe.

Placing the wind at my back I abandon my sea quest, settle instead for a cluster of trees just visible a few blocks away. Closer, the trees reveal a rectangular oasis among residential buildings whose orange-ochre walls are decorated with plaster versions of Corinthian columns, tall windows with azure shutters, and fanciful wrought-iron balconies.

There is a plaque declaring the square “Park Mozart,” its benches filled alternately between old men and the sleeping homeless. Standing in the middle, easily visible, is a heavy-booted flic-looking man. The radio that hangs from his belt crackles with news of distant wayward souls. Was he there to protect the old men? To protect the homeless? Protect one from the other? His cap and shirt carry the initials “A.S.V.P.” Did the S.V.P. portion stand for s'il vous plait? I did not ask him. I had been treated poorly on previous attempts to satisfy my curiosity about French police. I avoid eye contact, feeling diminished, bent to submission by my years of experience. Perhaps he was there to protect me, the old man from America. I sit down on a park bench, ponder how close I am to the end of my own marathon, and watch the sun disappear behind rooftops cluttered with chimneys and TV antennas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Child's Christmas in Pittsburgh

The tree is up, hung with lights and garlands, decorated with memories of children, memories of parents, brothers, and sisters, memories of a child whose excitement was so pure and alive with love and life, whose belief in goodwill was unshakeable, whose belief in wonder and joy was instinctual, whose belief in love was unconditional. In those days, when my years were a single digit, I would overflow with anticipation during the days before the winter solstice celebration I knew as Christmas. It was this time of year that the calendar seemed to stand still, the ten days before Christmas becoming unimaginably slow in coming, the day itself becoming so distant that my mother posted a large piece of paper casually scrawled with a number, filling the whole page, announcing the number of days before Christmas. She taped it to the cabinets above the kitchen pass-through where she hoped I would see it and not ask how many days until Christmas, where she pointed throughout the day when I posed the question, where I would tilt my head and lift my eyes every morning, hoping that somehow, because Santa was magic, that the sequence would unexpectedly jump from 10 to 1, from 9 to 1, from 8 to 1.

But it wasn't as if I sat idly, without anything to do. Every day brought another tradition, traditions that had been repeated since the beginning of time, traditions that, if not followed, if not duplicated in exact detail, brought hoots of heartfelt displeasure and chastisement. How regular and ordered my childhood was around this most potentially chaotic holiday. I was taught to celebrate Christmas as the season of giving, which I only understood as the season of getting. But my father enforced a strict rule of don't ask, don't tell, and should I even accidentally mention what I wanted for Christmas, the rule was that I not get it. Presents were meant to be unmentionable opportunities for others to surprise me with their thoughtfulness, love, and care for me. The lesson was hard, though I learned it with only one painful failure, the Christmas my younger brother got the walkie-talkie set I had so wanted. The one time I had whispered what I wanted to my mother in a moment of desire, a moment when I was blinded by my perceived need and the excitement of getting.

And everyone was expected to give everyone else a present, even if it took an 8-year-old all year, and there was still only 30 cents saved to be divided between two parents and three siblings. What thoughtful gift could I possibly buy for 5 cents? But my father never set a rule that he didn't enforce, and never let an obstacle keep anyone from discovering options and opportunities. He sat down with me to make a list family members and their presents, a list that ended up including various kinds of penny-candy, each piece thoughtfully chosen because of my knowledge of my brothers and sister. He was careful to excuse himself when it came time for me to choose what to get him. He reminded me that he wouldn't tell me what he wanted and he didn't want me to tell him what I wanted to get him. He reminded me that one doesn't get what one asks for, teaching me by his own example that rule of law applied even to kings.

And I went with my mother to the A&P grocery store, where she filled our shopping cart to overflowing with food for our family and visitors, our special holiday meal, and the days before and after when shopping was not possible. I carefully read my list of names paired with my thoughtful choices of candy, and reminded my mother that I needed to pick them out by myself, lest she see what I was getting, thereby breaking the rule of don't tell. And once I was alone I checked off my list, candy by candy, rechecking to make sure, because so many pieces of candy for so many people was a complicated task for a child distracted by his own imagining of what he might have bought for himself if it had been 30 cents he could have spent without thinking of others. It was then, at that very instant, when I was thinking what I would buy for myself, that I had the idea, the radical idea, an idea so dangerous that I looked over my shoulder to make sure my mother had not seen me think of it. I put the candy back, all the thoughtfully chosen candy, piece by piece, each into its own bin, until my bag was once again empty. Looking around one last time to make sure the coast was clear, I knew it was now or never, and I reached into the bin of bubble gum, nervously counting out 30 pieces, afraid my mother might appear and see what I was doing, her eyes growing round with amazement then narrowing, followed by a slap on the back of my hand. I counted them three times, 30 pieces of bubble gum, a candy not allowed in the house, not allowed in our hands, and forbidden from our mouths. And I closed that brown paper bag, rolling and crimping the top to lock its contents from prying eyes.

When I rejoined my mother I smiled, keeping the bag behind me, lest she infer its contents from the poking edges of the captured bubble gums, pressing their signatures from inside, as if prisoners crying out to be released, their message writ in recognizable patterns of crinkled brown bag, visible to those on the outside. And she did try to look, especially when I made it clear that I was hiding the bag from her. Determined to keep the secret, I shifted to keep my body between her and my quarry, as she cocked her head and leaned from one side to the other. “No peeking!” I invoked, and she stood upright, taken aback, then smiled, telling me I was right, turning her attention to the line of full shopping carts ahead of her. And as we approached, the closer we got, I realized that to get past the checker, I would have to expose my contents, lay them out, 30 pieces of bubble gum spread and counted for all to see. My secret Christmas gift plan would be, dare I say it, out of the bag.

I thought about hiding the bag, keeping it low, carrying it out of the store, stealing the candy without paying for it. It wouldn't be the first time I had succumbed to such a temptation, a single piece of candy, a pack of gum, my biggest heist being a roll of Life Savers. But I was holding a massive quantity of candy, 30 pieces of bubble gum, too much to stuff in my pockets. I was at a loss, no ideas forthcoming, frozen in line, caught between my mother in front and the mothers behind. I could do nothing but watch. Each item in the shopping cart was put up on the counter by my mother, carefully inspected and recorded by the checker, and passed on to the bagger. When the last item was lifted from the cart my mother turned and looked down at me. My face must have shown my dread because it immediately brought a look of concern. A question formed, then disappeared as she nodded and smiled. “My son has a Christmas present he wants to buy without me seeing.” The checker looked over the counter at me, smiled, nodded her approval. I waited in wonder as the world unfolded right before my eyes. My mother passed the cart to the bagger, who filled it with our groceries. The checker told my mother the total, which was under $10 in those days. My mother opened her purse, pulled out her wallet, paid the checker, counted and stored her change in the little side pocket, returned her wallet to her purse, walked to the re-loaded cart, and guided it towards the automatic sliding-glass door.

I was suddenly aware of the open path before me, and reminded of the patiently waiting mothers behind me. The checker peered over, trying to see what I was carrying, which prompted me to put the bag up on the counter. I looked towards the door. My mother had stopped and was waiting for me, her back carefully turned to the business at hand. Everything went beautifully: the bubble gum made its appearance for a short time, then was returned to its hiding place. I searched the line of waiting mothers for potential informants, but was met with only reassuring smiles and nods. I dug into my pocket and fished out the 30 cents, putting it up on the counter, never doubting or mistrusting the checker with my year's worth of savings. She confirmed, in a whisper, that the total was 30 cents, counted out the change, nodded, tapped in the payment. The cash register rang as the money drawer popped open. She dropped the appropriate coins in the appropriate places, closed the drawer with a click, tore off the receipt, and bent over to hand it to me. “Merry Christmas,” she said with a smile.

I took the bag home, kept it hidden from all prying eyes, until I could sequester myself in my room with a roll of wrapping paper, Scotch tape, scissors, and the want ads section of yesterday's newspaper. The unwritten tradition, passed through the ages, was to wrap presents with the intention of fooling the recipient. With a sense of pride I took a sheet of newspaper, balled it around 5 pieces of bubble gum, and wrapped the crumpled ball with Santa-red with green hollies Christmas paper. I struggled with the round shapes, using a bit more tape than Santa would, but securely enclosing and disguising the contents. I labeled each with a small square of wrapping paper, folded over a name carefully written in pencil. I hid the balls under my bed, preventing any peremptory prying or poking.

And when the countdown finally reached “1”, I moved my presents from my room to under the Christmas tree. The next morning I watched with excitement, as my younger brother unraveled the first ball. The five pieces of bubble gum tumbled to the floor, followed by a scream of “BUBBLE GUM!” The announcement brought my mother, and her careful inspection of the gift, looking at me as if to decide if my intentions were good or bad, finally smiling, deciding in favor of letting stand one rule over another, and returning the bubble gum to its rightful owner.

My father was not so pleased and glared at me as if I had lied to him. But my mother saw it, too, and went to his side, whispered calming words that tempered the creases in his forehead and softened his regard, though never becoming a smile. It was my sister who next cried out, “Bubble gum!” But her cry was more one of horror than happiness, she being the oldest, the one who was so often told to take care of me and my brothers, the one who always had to be right, was afraid of not being right and doing the wrong thing. She, better than any of us boys, was fluent in the letter of the law. She ran to our mother, her preferred referee, complaining of an obvious foul, looking to get a penalty issued. Instead she was rebuffed with the the illogic of contradiction and the messy meting out of justice. A quick glance to our father showed his agreement with the decision. Unable to find resolution in their opinion, she waited for her chance, and at the first distraction took it upon herself to quarantine the easily identified unopened balls. Her mistake was to try to confiscate the illegal bubble gum from my brother, whose cries of foul were taken more seriously, and my sister was quickly pulled aside and instructed to repatriate all presents, even if they were bubble gum.

Later that morning, after all the presents were opened and the floor was awash in shredded strips of red and green, after the required rounds of thank-yous and your-welcomes, when quiet reigned as each played with his new-found favorite toy, my father came over, looked down at me with his hands at his hips, deciding what to do with me. He asked in a gentle voice that immediately warned of a trap, “I thought you were going to buy hard candies?”, the implication of which was clear: that I had bought unlawful bubble gum, sneaked it into the house under false pretenses, and distributed it amongst all present. I looked up at the towering figure, the giant that was my father, rule enforcer and king of the house, and said, “It wasn't a surprise, you know, if you knew.” His face softened and I imagined the rules colliding inside his head. Still, his hands remained on his hips, so I launched torpedo number two, “And I thought bubble gum was a more thoughtful gift.” His eyes flared open, then narrowed, then he suddenly laughed. “Yes, I suppose it was,” he conceded. “Merry Christmas,” he said, reaching down to lift me, then deciding instead to hold out his hand for a shake. I would have preferred the hug, but was proud to receive the more adult shake.

I scanned the room, thinking for a moment about the expressions on my brothers' faces, upon their discovery of bubble gum successfully in their possession. The moment was short, as I turned my attention to all the wonderful stuff I got for Christmas. But the memory remained long, becoming one of so many that decorate my tree.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Memories and Rose-Colored Glasses

I lead a charmed life! I am infatuated like a man head-over-heals in love. Every day I celebrate the wonderful things that happen to me. This is because of my brain dysfunction. My neurons are awash with a surplus of dopamine. You've heard the saying, "Every cloud has a silver lining?" Well, I never see the clouds, only the silver. I turn everything that happens to me into a positive experience.

What does this have to do with memories?

My rosy view leaves me with no "bad" memories. I turn them into "good" memories or forget them. You might think this is useful, might even wish you had the same ability, but it does have some side-effects.

For example, it is easy for me to forgive (and forget). It makes me appear very compassionate. I lent money to a man in need, even though two years ago I had lent him money which he didn't pay back. I only knew he borrowed the money two years ago because I have a book of the loans I make. I found his previous loan when I was looking for a page to write down his current loan.

Another example, I am very trusting of people, even if I don't know them. Luckily, in my experience, the vast majority of all people deserve my trust. But it has also exposed me to significant risk, times when those around me warn me to be more careful. Like the old man who warned me that the young man walking behind him had a gun. In that case, I chose to ignore the “cloud” and see only the “silver”. Unfortunately, I was proven mistaken as the young man pulled me into an alley and robbed me at gunpoint. Because of this, I considered getting a gun to protect myself. But after a couple months I felt safe without one once more.

Even more disturbing was my realization that most of my greatest epiphanies may not be so grand as I imagined. As I survey the piles of papers towering from every horizontal surface in my office, I see how my rose-colored glasses combined with my active imagination have held me back. I have kept my ideas as daydreams, which was safer than risking the judgment of the rest of the world. There is no applause louder than the applause imagined!


After 59 years, including several recent years of clinical depression, I have learned the world is much simpler than I thought it was. The mistaken complexity comes from my perception, which is all in my head. Though painfully humbling, my new-found understanding has freed me from martyrdom. I have found peace in knowing that the world depends on all of our actions, not just on my own.

Still, I am wracked with questions. Have I failed to meet my potential? Not given my best? Am I protecting myself from my disappointment with my life? From the insignificance of my death? I really don't know. But I do know I have done a good job at being a human being. If I were to die today, I would be satisfied with my life and the choices I have made. And others would say, “He was a good man.” Or is this yet another example of the conclusions of a selective memory?

Friday, December 6, 2013

A place where I find satisfaction...

There is something special about 9,500 feet. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the backbone of California, that altitude is known as treeline. Here granite rules over the sparse fingers of pioneer conifers, trees stunted by malnutrition and abuse. The majestic peaks jut skyward thousands of feet higher, draped year-round in snow that, even in August, continued to transform glacial cirques into ice blue lakes.

When backpacking, treeline was where we always headed, often following the John Muir Trail until our need for exploration and solitude drove us cross-country above the woodland frontier. Here, boulder hopping was faster than climbing over avalanche fallen pines. And every once in a while we were lucky enough to find a ridge of glaciated granite, sanded down long ago by a passing ice age, open and flat enough for us to gambol at the top of the world.

By late afternoon of our second day out we would search for a lake with just enough trees to shelter our tents and harbor a hammock. The trees not only saved my sunburned skin from further exposure to the harsh unfiltered summer sunlight, but also broke the wind that whistled down the mountains not long after the granite blazed red with the setting sun, and warm rising breezes lost ground to heavy sheets of cold that slipped off the mountain's ice fields.

It was here, in that magic country where the rules had not changed for tens of thousands of years, that I would close myself in my tent, make a pillow of my clothes, and wiggle my bare body down into a cold mummy sleeping bag. By the time I pulled the tie-strings tight, leaving only a small breathing hole, the bag was already warmed to body temperature, which would have been too hot had the outside temperature not dropped below freezing.

I would awaken to the birth of granite boulders, heard but never seen tumbling down the cliffs, released after a final birthing contraction had given way to the warming expansion of the early morning sun.

Today was a layover day which meant sleeping in until the sun rose high enough to turn the frozen frost of my breath on the tent ceiling into droplets of water that darkened the green nylon cover of my bag. The true measure of the night's cold was the thickness of the ice in my plastic canteen as I took a ritual re-hydrating drink of water. Breakfast was cold, too, for in this ecology wood was so scarce that to burn even the fallen limbs meant certain death for the struggling trees, 90% of their nutrients coming from consumption of the decayed remains of their own detritus.

As the other members of my party set off in search of lake trout or mountain peak, I clambered into my hammock to rest my knees and watch the wind chase the hillside grasses and dance with the meadow flowers. The gusts whispered to me as they passed through the needles, rocking me to sleep with their sway of the trees.

Monday, December 2, 2013

My mother always said...

“When they're gone, they're gone!”

Caught with my hand in the cookie jar, the familiar refrain to my mother's German upbringing brought a smile to my face. Ever since I can remember, when Mom knew I was coming home, she made chocolate chip cookies. Something about those cookies made me crazy. I was an addict!

It was the first thing I would do when I came home, after giving Mom a hug. I'd go to the kitchen and quietly lift the shiny stainless steel lid of the third largest canister...

The largest of the four containers held flour, which one hoped was fresher than the aged dirty-white powder trapped inside the clear plastic lid handle. The second held sugar. Sugar seemed to hold up better, at least the sugar in the handle still looked like sugar. The fourth lid held a sample of black tea, certainly from an era of early far-eastern exploration.

The cookie jar, that magical third canister, had an empty lid handle. No doubt my mother kept it empty to hide the secret of its contents, a secret passed on to my generation with a whisper and words of encouragement. I don't remember the first time I opened it, but I know I had to reach up, stand on tip-toes, barely able to reach the top of the lid. From that angle it was impossible to get a cookie without signaling my intention with a loud clang. It rang with a clarity that filled the house, and summoned my mother from any corner of the house into the kitchen.

“When they're gone, they're gone,” she would trumpet, announcing her arrival.

She never told me I couldn't have a cookie, unless it was right before dinner. My most likely strike would be after climbing the hill home, from the bus stop after school. If she was in the kitchen, Mom would take out two cookies and fill a glass with milk, placing them on the edge of the pass-through where I was sure to find them. If she wasn't there, it was three cookies, without milk.

By the time I was 11 I had grown tall enough to master the removal of the lid without a sound. The trick was lifting the lid slowly, with a finger of my other hand pressing against the rising lid, acting as a damper for any possible “in-exitus” sound. Taking the lid off and removing three cookies was the easy part.

And here I will not bore you with the testing I had done to determine that three cookies was just the right number to take, partly because my mother didn't notice missing only three cookies, and partly because three was the maximum number of cookies I could stuff into my mouth all at once, in the event of an emergency.

The real artistry was in putting the lid back on without that little “click” of stainless steel on stainless steel. Even after mastering the “re-lidding” operation, if I didn't pay attention, was too eager to get those cookies into my mouth, the “click” was unmistakeable, triggering the alarm:

“When they're gone, they're gone.”

My mother continued to make cookies for me even after I was married and had children, much to consternation of my father. It was not my childish behavior that annoyed him. Rather, he was upset because my mother would not make cookies in my absence, leaving my father with long periods of chocolate chip cookie withdrawal, only partially satisfied with the invention of cookie dough ice cream.

Unfortunately, before my children were old enough for me to pass on the tradition, my parents moved to a retirement community, to an apartment without a kitchen. And though I am almost 60 years old, and all the kids have left home, I still take pride at being able to sneak into the kitchen, and without a sound, lift the lid off the cookie jar, grab three cookies, and put the lid back down. My wife smiles when she sees me with a mouth full of cookies. She doesn't say a word, doesn't have to, because in my head echoes what my mother always said: “When they're gone, they're gone.”

Last

As I survive my 60th year I struggle with “last” more often than “first.” I guess I am lucky to have lasted this long, but I am more accustomed to a life of firsts.

“This will be our last Christmas in the house,” my wife remarked, stating the fact without emotion.

The words settled into my consciousness with the dull thud of a boulder dropped into wet river silt.

“You know that, don't you?”
“I guess. I hadn't really thought about it. Not that way.”

My wife gave me something between a “you should have known” and a “are you kidding me” look.

“I'm taking down all the fall decorations today.”

She left me at the table with my breakfast, but the cinnamon-sprinkled latte, toasted croissant, and aged Gouda cheese were no longer as reassuring as they had been.

Big changes were coming. It was a new beginning, our first as a childless couple. We had been married 14 years ago with three children each. We had blended a family and raised all six. Earlier this year, the youngest had graduated college and gotten a job.

Six bedrooms, four baths, 1885 Victorian for sale.

The house was too big for just two. And my wife struggled with the stairs again since her knee operation had failed. We had already talked of moving ever since the last child had left. But I hadn't been ready. I had rebuilt this house when we got married. I still loved the authentic character, sunlight filtered through the wavy-glass windows, fir floors that remembered every footstep, and the bright echos of sounds reflected by lathe and plaster walls. I would never own another home so spectacularly vibrant with the sense of Victorian romanticism.

“We'll give the kids our ornaments this year,” my wife declared, walking through the kitchen, eying my untouched repast. “When shall we get the tree?”

She left before I could answer. It was a rhetorical question, one to prepare me.

My last Christmas tree ordeal. My last struggle to bring an enormous, 12-foot tree through the double front doors, bending the trunk at a 90-degree turn to slide through the single door into the parlor. I did it by myself last year, my wife smart enough to disappear so that she didn't have to hear my swearing and cursing as tree versus father played out for yet another year. This would be my last tree...

STOP! Sentimentality will not serve me.

I stared at my croissant, took a drink of coffee, then ate my breakfast. It tasted different, better, as if it were my last meal.

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