Monthly Archives: July 2012

My November Guest

Penn Station was crowded, more so than usual for a late fall Saturday morning, but having learned the trick of going to the lower level until boarding time, I was able to get onto the train well ahead of the masses. This advantage, however, did little to lighten my mood, one that matched the damp, gray, heavy and lowering sky outside.

I chose a seat toward the center of the car (not over the wheels, something else I learned a long time ago) on the right side, where the scenery is far more interesting: the wetlands of Connecticut, the ocean, the inlets, lighthouses and old New England architecture.

“Is this seat taken?”

I turned to see a lovely gray-haired woman, one who seemed too elegant for coach class on Amtrak.

“No, please have a seat.” I said, nodding and gesturing in a way that I hoped was inviting and that matched her elegance. She smiled and sat, and I noticed she had nothing in the way of luggage with her. I assumed she was making a local run to somewhere up the coast.

The interminable trek through the East River tunnel finally, well, terminated, and we were once again out in the gray November morning. We rode in silence for a while, me occasionally looking out at the industrial dreck that abounds in the rail yards of the Bronx, and fighting with a difficult crossword puzzle; she reading whatever was contained in the small blue book she held.

Eventually we came to the wetlands, with all the muted colors to be expected: all in the browns, ochers and grays, with the gray mist and sky blending into the near monotony of it. I guess I sat transfixed long enough for her to notice, and guessing again, I felt she had she picked up on my mood.

“My November Guest,” she said. I turned to her, thinking she was reading something from her book. It was a title, but not from her book, which was closed now. She, too, gazed out the window and she began reciting a Robert Frost poem from memory:

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

A warmth spread through my chest and a grateful smile cracked my face as I turned to her. I told her that was beautiful, and we talked at length about Frost, frost, fall and the coming snow.

She became something of a welcome enigma, having distracted me from my somber mood, yet at the same time riding through it with me and validating it by the recital she had just made. When we arrived at her stop I was sorry to say good-bye to her, but the warmth I felt carried me all the way through to spring.

I often remember my November guest, and wonder where she is and who is fortunate enough to be at her side.


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Funny thing

The funny thing about thinking you know someone is that sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you find out they’ve been smiling in your face all along, for years even, while likely calling you names behind your back and thinking there’s something sick about you. Maybe, in that childish way, they’ve been sticking their tongue out at you, too. Making fun; thinking you’re pathetic, when in reality it’s they who are the pathetic ones.

It’s impossible to please everyone. Lincoln’s adage works here as well, substituting “please all the people” etc. for “fool all the people.” Problem is, when you think you know someone and you think that someone has your back — not to stab it; to protect it — and you then find out that person would probably rather stab you if there weren’t so many laws and repercussions and punishments, that’s gotta hurt.

See, I’d much rather you call me faggot to my face than smile all nicey and pretend you actually genuinely care about me. At least that way I know what I’m dealing with: you’re being straightforward; you’re being straight with me. Pun, yes.

Strangers, yeah, strangers will always hurl insults. I’ve heard them all my adult life. Who cares? Who needs those people? Who isn’t able to let them stew in their own stink?

When it’s a relative, one you grew up with, one you thought you knew and could trust, one you loved at one time … I can’t even find the words for that, and to let that someone stew in their own stink, that’s also gotta hurt.

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Ruth 2

One time I had to excuse myself from computer training sessions with Ruth for a week: John and I were heading to the Midwest, to Milwaukee, to spend some time with friends.

Ruth asked me how we were getting there, and I said “We’re flying Midwest Air.”

In those days, Midwest Air had the delightful practice of serving up fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Actually baked then and there, in-flight, in the little kitchen. You could smell them as they were baking, and you tried not to fidget too much as the flight attendants made their way — slowly; ever so slowly! — down the aisle, handing out napkin-packs of two still-warm chocolate chip cookies, the chips still soft enough to be melting.

Anyway, I told Ruth we would be flying Midwest Air and as I barely got the words out, she chimed in (“chimed” being not quite right, as it’s hard to chime when your voice is a deep growly grumble. Whovians can conjure up a Dalek saying this with enthusiasm.) … she chimed in with “The COOKIES!!

Which had us laughing once again.

Thank you, Ruth. (And John, for reminding me.)

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Way back in one of the early eras of personal computing — not the Paleozoic; maybe the Mesozoic Era: 1999 — I presented a seminar to members of my neighborhood association that I called Everything You Wanted to Know About the Internet (But Were Afraid to Ask.) (The reference to Dr. Reuben’s sex manual of the ’60s was probably lost on them.) I was just setting up my business, “The Old School — friendly, personal-computer training for kids over 40,” and I figured it would be good P.R. and a way to acquire clients.

The mean age of the association’s members was about 65, so I didn’t expect a huge turnout but I planned a two-hour session anyway. I figured if anyone got too bored or confused, they could leave at any time.

I wasn’t prepared for the response. Having booked a small room nearby that comfortably held 25 people, I quickly had to regroup after the 120th caller who wanted to reserve a seat. The solution was to split the seminar into three sessions and spread out the audience over three rather tightly packed meetings.

After each session — I’m pleased to say no one left early — I had a chance to chat with them, and one couple really charmed me. Paul was a writer who worked for Publishers Weekly and who was fairly accomplished, having written several mystery novels. He was quite comfortable with his computer. Ruth, his wife, was a literary agent and completely new to computers.

She signed up for lessons on the spot. Her pure white hair framed a still-graceful face that was so full of life, and her eyes glistened with such enthusiasm as we chatted about ways to help streamline her office that I was eager to begin teaching her. In stark contrast to her appearance, her deep, gruff and raspy voice almost hypnotized me as we planned how and when to begin her training.

On the starting date I went to her office and found her sitting behind a brand new jelly-blue first-generation iMac. Rounded, globular and largely see-through, it nearly overtook her small desk in a way that said “I’m the most important thing in this room!” an odd proclamation from something that Ruth hadn’t even turned on. I was relieved, after looking around a bit, to see a typewriter on the return of her desk: it meant at least she was familiar with the keyboard layout.

I had an enormous amount of fun working through all the exasperating moments with her: she was quick to laugh at her own fumbling knowledge. For example, on more than one occasion she grabbed the mouse the wrong way, with the cord facing toward her — those iMac mice were completely round: probably the worst design ever — and she wondered aloud and gruffly why, when she moved the mouse UP the screen cursor went DOWN.

That was another thing: the cursor. After many tries at maneuvering it with faltering success, she grumbled, “I can see why you call it a cursor. I can think of several curse words to use.”

Then there was the rest of the terminology. “Double-click on that icon.” I said.

“What? What is ‘double-click’? Is that a word? For that matter, you said ‘icon’? I don’t see any Russian Saints.” Another laugh.

One time she called me on the phone in an excited state, saying her husband thought she should have a web site to promote her literary agency. “Do you agree?” she asked. I thought it was a good idea and told her we could put it on the agenda.

I had to take a beat to keep from laughing before answering, when next she asked, “Now, what exactly is a web site?”

I won’t say she got terribly proficient, but she did learn the basics of word processing and was able to retire her old, clunky typewriter. She also got a good grasp on searching the Internet for information about books and authors, she got her Amazon account set up and she quickly picked up the benefits of, and her way around, e-mail.

She even learned to keep the mouse “tail,” as she called the cord, running up and away from her hand rather than along her wrist, thereby preventing an errant cursor.

And she never lost her enthusiasm, even having had to wade into this entirely new territory.

As time went on, she cursed less and less, as she cursored more and more.

Having learned as much as she needed to, and graciously, gratefully giving me leave, she called off her lessons. I saw her only occasionally in the neighborhood after that, sometimes with her husband, Paul, but often by herself. Those were always warm, friendly mini-reunions that brightened my day.

Then one time I saw them from across the avenue, and noticed she was walking with difficulty, severely bent over and holding Paul’s arm tightly. Shortly afterward I learned she had died after a brief battle with a rapidly advancing cancer.

It was one of the hazards of working with “people of a certain age” that I never knew when I would lose a client. No longer a client at that point, Ruth had become a friend, as much a mentor to me as I to her, and I was saddened to learn she had died.

My life was enriched by the times I got to spend with her, and I still hear her gruff voice lashing out — nearly cursing, but not quite — at her misbehaving mouse.


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“The End”

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form and void… but then it got fucked up.

Ab ovo. So this egg, see, it formed out of nothing into the brine; it hung out for a while—not long: a narrow window—and then just before this egg kicked the bucket, this sperm leapt into the void yelling “Banzai!” No, yelling “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” No, “Forza, Italia!

That can’t be right.

Maybe it didn’t yell anything. Maybe it just leapt. Whatever, this sperm was probably thinking, “Where the hell am I and more important, where is the rest of me?” It wasn’t alone; it had a lot of companions and competition, but it knew even without thinking about it that it would be the one. Not that it mattered, because whichever one made it to the starting line, which was also the finish line, this sperm would hand off its element, its −ness, its joeability to the starter—it’s kind of an osmotic thing that sperms do—and the result would be the same: a catastrophic event of the grandest insignificance; not a bang but a whimper.

It was easy from the start. But then it got fucked up.

Then there was a car ride, the first it could remember. Hearing, if not seeing. Then there were lights, bright ones; and cold air and silly, brusque movements; wetness and jostling and then once again, finally, soft warmth and comfort.

It would have been a big deal, except it wasn’t.

from whence it came
It Came from Beyond
Out of the depths


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Pride [sic]


On Pride Sunday I had kind of come full circle. The day promised to be rainy anyway: despite the cloudless beginning, there was a dark woolly blanket pulling its way up over my head and it looked to be a wet blanket.

In the beginning I watched Boston Prides from a distance so great that it was only met by my reading in The Phoenixabout “the homosexual activities” on Charles Street. The visits I made to Charles Street during the rest of the year had only slightly prepared me for what a full day of concentrated Pride would look or feel like. (“Try new Concentrated Pride, the laundry detergent for all your fine feminine washables.”)

I guess, having ultimately gotten up the courage to go to the Church on Charles Street those Fridays to the dances they held there, I finally realized that what I was feeling wasn’t so much apprehension as — this might sound odd coming from a recovering Catholic — communion; this being an unfamiliar-enough feeling that I didn’t recognize it.

Suddenly it was all so easy: those Friday-night dance-ins were so full, so crowded, so exuberant, so energetic and so freeing. It wasn’t long before I had a coterie of pals of all sorts, amorphous though it was, expanding and contracting from day to day or week to week. Still, there was a core, a corps; and there was comfort and encouragement in that. There was also a lot of laughter, and wall-breaking: for the first time ever I could open the door and not only look out furtively, but go out, to venture, and bring with me all the stuff of all those years that begged for expression.

An explosion of riches followed, including the requisite bruises that failed relationships — and even in some cases, mere failed acquaintances — brought, but they all became facets of a glorious, gorgeous gem, although a gem with some sharp, hardened edges.

And there were many Prides after that where I participated vigorously because I felt it.

Too many adventures in between to recount before arriving at this year’s Pride, but there I was, thinking “It would be nice if it rained today.” I guess I’m just not sure any more of what it is I should be proud of, and to stand there in my onesies trying to infer some, even a little, of that exuberance threatened to be fruitless (an irony of great proportion.)

Still, I was feeling guilty about all those who had looked forward eagerly to the day. Even though I had no business thinking my influence on matters cosmic is so great that I could will up a rainy day, the guilt was there, just part of my makeup.

I had thought to spend part of the day at a bookstore: I have a thirst for an Icelandic grammar book — a beginners’ book, to be sure — because I just watched an Icelandic film (who knew they even had movie theaters up there?) about a soccer player in a small town who announces to his team that he’s gay. Listening to them speaking I could pick out enough of the words (but not enough of the sense) that I’m now intrigued by how close Icelandic is to Scandinavian languages and in some ways, English.

Anyway, when I got up that morning, I was thinking I would do that: go to Barnes & Noble.

Then I realized it was Pride Sunday.

And then all that garbage tumbled out, and so I ended up doing neither, nothing.

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Roo Ski

MONDAY, JULY 16, 2012

Roo Ski

No, not kangaroos slaloming down an Alpine mountainside. Rooski: the Russian language, rooski yazyk.

When I was working at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital in the ’80s, we started getting an influx of Russian-Jewish patients, the start of their exodus from the USSR. BI had one Russian interpreter on staff at the time, Jane, called Zhana in Russian. The patient load became impractically heavy for her so the hospital decided to recruit other interpreters who could at least provide the essential information for incoming patients, ask the essential questions and get the patients settled until either Zhana or a doctor showed up. As none were forthcoming, the hospital hired an instructor and made a course in medical Russian available to whoever wanted to learn it.

I signed up for the course, and while it turned out to be a worthwhile experience for reasons to be described later, the actual course was so limited, so focused, that today, unless I needed to ask you “Do you have your blue card?” or advise you “Don’t worry: the doctor (or Zhana) will be here momentarily.” (Doktr [or Zhana] seichass pridyot!) I would have been at a loss.

True, there were other phrases that could have been useful outside the hospital setting: “Take off your clothes and lie down, please.” “Open your mouth [and say ‘Ah’].” “You are pregnant,” (either with or without the prefix “Ksazhilenyiyu” or ‘Unfortunately.'”

As a language nut, I was stricken by what I considered to be the brutal nature of the language. In those days I felt it lacked grace and graciousness, and even a sense of person, there being no verbs for “to be” or “to have” in the present tense. Think about that: no word that says “am,” as in, “I am happy.” No verb for “have” as in “I have a nice car.” Okay, maybe no one actually had cars except for the privileged few, but how about no way to say “I have a lovely pork chop for tonight’s dinner that the twelve of us can share!”

I’ve since learned that no such lack of nuance exists. Although I never got to the point where I could read The Brothers Karamazov, or The Idiot (one of my favorite novels; it really spoke to me)  in Russian, the translations proved there to be unfettered freedom in shades of expression.

The basics of hospital emergencies being learned, some of the students in the class were eager to expand our knowledge of Russian, so we implored the Russian teacher to consider another “semester,” with us paying for the classes ourselves. The teacher, a charming, smiling-eyed Russian woman of a certain age, a former teacher of English in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, agreed, and so we were happy to have another six weeks or so of lessons. These were held at her apartment since the hospital wasn’t sponsoring them.

The classes got only better as they progressed. Eventually, Ada, the instructor, decided that Russian culture and cuisine were important in learning the language, so she began providing dinner for us (at no extra charge — she had become fond of us, and we of her) and on occasion we had a visitor/friend of hers from the old country, so as to experience another person speaking the language and other viewpoints, etc.

One particularly hot July evening, we slogged (or did we slosh?) over to her apartment for our class hoping she would finally relent and turn on her air conditioner. For some reason, although there were air conditioners in every room, she had yet to use any of them while we were there. I opined that it might be because she had spent all of her life up until recently a mere stone’s throw from Siberia, and she welcomed any warmth at all.

She showed us into the non-air-conditioned and rather close and stifling living room, and graciously informed us that “It will be just few more minutes. The soup is almost ready!” As she turned to leave, we turned to one another, eyes wide and mouths agape. “Soup?!” we whispered in unison. Other silent moanings and writhings took place briefly, until she summoned us into the kitchen.

Like dead men walking we slumped in the kitchen, but found three bowls of ice-cold beet borscht awaiting us, replete with fresh dill, cold hard-boiled eggs and even ice cubes, to keep it cold. We happily partook, and almost as one we asked “How do you say ‘This is delicious!’ in Russian?”

Another evening we were greeted by a visitor, a gentleman from the former Leningrad, an engineer who had as yet not found work in the US. He seemed very congenial (also those smiling Russian eyes!) and the conversation proceeded rather nicely until Hildy, my fellow student, took out a pack of cigarettes and proceeded to light one.

This was back in the day when smoking wasn’t a gross or capital offense, and even smoking in someone else’s apartment without begging for permission first was quite normal. Grigory, our co-host for the evening, jumped up and burst over to Hildy, saying, “GIVE ME, please, a cigaRETTE!”

Again as a group we recoiled, this time in surprise and also a little bit of fear, as his aggressiveness took us all by surprise. Hildy surrendered a cigarette post-haste, eyes still wide.

At this point our teacher, the lovely Ada, eyes still smiling, softly advised Grigory that, in English, it’s polite to ask “May I have a cigarette?” rather than using the imperative form of the verb, telling someone to give you one.

Just another difference in language use, but to Grigory it seemed we were unduly alarmed. “But I said ‘please’!” he countered. At that point we all laughed and shortly after, another notable evening, one of the highlights of my life, came to a close.

To this day, I have no idea how to express “May I have…” in Russian.


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