Just for Tricks

I steered my car on to the circular gravel drive of the Buffalo Motor Lodge in Flagstaff, Arizona and stopped. A building, low and dark, split lodge pole pine siding. A long verandah stretching the length of its front was lined with Adirondack-type lounge chairs under the overhang of a cedar shingled roof Steps in the middle and at each end of the verandah. A lawn in the center of the semi-circle formed by the drive. In the center of the lawn a New England rock garden planted with colorful annuals and wild flowers. A parking area at the left of the lodge where five or six cars were parked. I pulled up to a split rail fence alongside a gray Honda Accord with a license plate frame that said Van Nuys. Must be his car. He said he often makes the eight hour drive here for long week-ends to get out of LA.

I walked toward the lodge, the gravel crunching under my shoes. A path at the left of the lodge led to cottages set around a large grassy area where guests could sit in lawn chairs or on chaises behind the man lodge. A small grove of aspen at the far end of the lawn. Tall cedars and pines shot up above the backs of the cottages. At the end closest to the lodge was a swimming pool, surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence.

The cottages were numbered consecutively around the grassy area. Five down each side and five across the back. Looking for Number 14, I took a short cut across the grass. Each of the cottages was separate. That’s good. No common walls. No neighbors to listen to. All had the same lodge pole pine siding and cedar shingle roofs as the main lodge. The grass hadn’t been cut in a long time and the swimming pool was covered with a vinyl sheet dense with pine needles. The cottages all looked the same: a door in the center and single double-hung four-light windows trimmed in green on either side. Some of the windows had screens.

The number 14 was barely visible behind a weathered rusty screen door. Two wooden steps painted dark brown led up to the door. I was standing in front of Number 14 because of Gene. At least, that’s what he said his name is. We’d met at the Swing, a sleazy bar on Fourth Street. The kind of place you find listed in the Damron Address Book. Mixed crowd, cruisy. Running a quick scan of the guys seated at the u-shaped bar, I noticed him on the side opposite me. We made eye contact. I smiled. He smiled back. Step One. Setup. I flashed a broad grin. He nodded. Step Two. Contact. I picked up my drink and moved to the stool to his right. Step Three. Conversation. It doesn’t take long. Two, maybe three minutes. If you’ve talked to a guy for five minutes and you haven’t connected, nothing is going to happen. Step Four. Connection. This trick or another later on.

I knocked. Heavy footsteps came toward the door. Step Five. Score.

Paying it Forward

I find coins on the ground often. Over the years, I’ve found lots of coins. Somewhere I learned that when you find a “heads-up penny” it is good luck for the day. A “tails-up” penny has to passed on. When I give a “heads up” penny to anyone, I tell them, “My grandmother always told me that whenever I find a ‘tails up’ penny, I have to give it, ‘heads up,’ to someone so we both have good luck for the day.” My grandmother didn’t tell me that, but people respond well to her wisdom.

Once I found forty dollars on the sidewalk as I was walking on or off of a tram that runs between two hotels in Las Vegas. I don’t recall the details of the discovery. I don’t like Las Vegas.

Another time, as I was walking to my car, I found sixty dollars in the parking lot of the Mormon Temple in Santa Monica. When I got home, I called the Temple and talked to a woman at the reception desk. I left my name and phone number in case someone reported losing the money. No one called.

Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Barbara Streisand all sang about finding a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store. Fats Domino found his thrill on Blueberry Hill. The world stood still. I’ve looked for love, probably in all the wrong places. There are no more five and ten cent stores.

I lost my cell phone once. This is not just any cell phone. This is a Blackberry Curve 8300 titanium phone that receives my email and holds my address book, calendar, to do list, notes, and important information like user IDs and passwords for a slew of online accounts. Discovering the loss, I felt sick and angry at my carelessness.

My first response was to call AT&T Wireless where I learned I could disable the phone by going to their web site and clicking on the “Report a Lost/Stolen Phone” link. Next, I changed passwords for accounts I thought might be vulnerable.

Having moved through the initial stages of shock, denial, and anger, getting to acceptance seemed the most reasonable way to handle the situation. I called AT&T Wireless again and explored replacement options. Not eligible for an upgrade and without loss/replacement insurance, the cost of a new phone came to nearly $500. Acting as if I were in a state of acceptance, I placed the order.

My home phone rang about 9:30 p.m., just as I was preparing to go to bed. “I’m looking for Dennis,” said a male voice.

“He’s speaking,” I said.

“This is Phil Reiman. I think I found your cell phone in front of Staples this afternoon. I hope you won’t mind, but I went through your address book looking for a clue to who the owner might be. That’s how I found your number.”

“That’s no problem,” I said. “I’m just happy to know it’s been found.”

“You must be a pretty important guy, ’cause there’s sure a lot of stuff in there!”

We negotiated a meeting. Fifteen minutes later, I met Phil in the parking lot of Mickey’s Pub, less than a mile from my house. “Wow! Thank you,” I said, as he handed me my phone. “I’m so happy to have it back. Losing this phone represented quite a loss.”

The following morning, I thought I was probably still in shock when Phil handed me the phone and I failed to offer him any kid of reward or recognition. After thinking about it all day, I called Phil. His phone number was still on my caller ID.

“This is Dennis, they guy whose cell phone you returned last night. I just wanted to thank you again and to tell you how grateful I am to have it back.”

“You’re welcome, Dennis,” he said. “I appreciate that.”

“Phil, it occurred to me that I should have offered to do something for….”

“I really don’t want anything,” Phil said, cutting me off.

“I understand,” I said. “I would feel the same way if I had found your phone. It’s the right thing to do.”

“Right,” he said. “I’m fine with that.”

“Well,” I said, “I think one good turn deserves another. I believe in paying it forward and I’d like to do something for you. I can make a contribution to a charity….”

“I don’t want any credit.”

“I’m going to do something, though, and it may as well be something you’d like.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”

“Okay. Thanks,” I said. “I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”

A week passed without hearing from Phil. One evening, talking with my neighbor, Cathy, I told her the story. “I have the perfect thing,” she said. “I’m chair of the Safe Grad Night Committee. We always need donations.”

“What a good idea,” I said. “I love that.” I went home and wrote the check.

I canceled the order for the replacement phone.

I’m still looking for love.

Diamante 1 & 2

Diamante 1

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[1968]

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Straight

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direct paragon

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marrying procreating celebrating

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participation inclusion alienation closet

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deviating hiding fearing

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transgressive abandoned

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Gay

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Diamante 2

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[2008]

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Straight

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honest courageous

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caring understanding loving

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The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up

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communicating feeling trusting

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truthful acknowledged

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Gay

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The R Word

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘as in R-E-T-I-R-E-M-E-N-T…

Wednesday, May 19. My last day of work. Retirement is official Thursday,  July 1.

Saturday morning. A long list of things I plan or need to do. I don’t recall the reason. I opened my camera bag. Inside, I found a copy of Dressed for Death, a Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon. I read the back cover. I opened the book. 5:00 p.m. I finished the book. A great feeling! Not the slightest qualm about accomplishing nothing on my To Do list.

Sunday morning. I think I’ll spend the day reading… because I can. Ken Follett’s A Place Called Freedom. So much for my “junk food” reading. Then, I picked up Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Well into William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America, I feel my desire to begin an American odyssey being fueled.

Yesterday. An appointment with my cardiologist. My blood pressure was 94 over 70. “My blood pressure is lower than usual,” I told the doctor.

“Oh,” she said, “that’s because you’re retired.”

“You think that’s what it is,” I asked.

“I know that’s what it is,” she said. “I observe this often. When people retire, their blood pressure goes down.”

This morning. A friend asked, “How are you enjoying retirement?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve been too busy reading.”

“R,” as in “Retirement.”

“R,” as in “Reading!”

God Bless the Moon Redux

My nephew, Kenneth, is the inspiration for this blog which I began writing, albeit sporadically, two years ago. One of the first posts I wrote was a story about Kenneth entitled “God Bless the Moon.” Initially, I intended to call the blog “God Bless the Moon” or, simply, “GBTM.” Although complications with the blog’s title caused me to choose another title, the original purpose of the blog, to celebrate the people, places, ideas, and events that enrich my life, remains the same.

My brother’s eldest son and the first of the family’s “next” generation, Kenneth occupied a place of importance in my life and especially in his dad’s life, the two of them being nearly inseparable. Our father’s eldest brother was called “Unkie” when we were young kids. When Kenneth was born, my mother, ever mindful of family roles and what they are called, announced that the elder brother is called “Unkie.” And, so it was.

Time passes and life takes unanticipated if not unwelcome turns. A hostile divorce, geographical distance, and the exigencies of everyday living have separated Kenneth from me for more than thirty of his thirty-eight years. Happily, the separation ended yesterday when Kenneth, once again, entered my life.

In many ways, I feel “ripped off” having been deprived of Kenneth’s presence in my life these many years. But, choosing to celebrate the blessings that fill my life prevents me from nursing unhealthy and unproductive resentments. Kenneth is in my life again. I am grateful for that blessing. We go forward.

A brief digression into the past before moving on
I saw Kenneth the last time over twenty years ago when he was probably in his late teens. Prior to that, I hadn’t seen him for at least ten years. I had a ring—a moss agate in a silver setting—that my grandmother gave to me before she died. I was fourteen years old. The ring belonged to my “Unkie.” I wore that ring for many years and cherished it because it had belonged to one I loved dearly. I decided it was time to pass the ring on and, on the occasion of what was to be our last meeting for twenty some years and, as Kenneth’s “Unkie,” I gave the ring to him.

Back to the present
The wonder of modern technology made it possible for Kenneth to “find” me yesterday through FaceBook. A brief message from him was all that was required to open the floodgates of happiness I feel about having Kenneth in my life once again.

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘Kenny (unless he tells me to call him by another name) sounds well-settled and happy in his life married to Lucy, a lovely woman who I had the pleasure of meeting and of chatting with over the telephone later in the day after our initial exchange of FaceBook messages. Kenny and Lucy have two beautiful daughters, Katie (19) and Alie (16). A trip in the near future to visit them and to become better acquainted with all is eagerly anticipated.

Beginning this blog, I had no idea what it would come to mean to me in terms of the people and events that bless my life. In writing a story about Kenny, I never dreamed we would come full-circle.

God bless the moon!

Change, Reinvention, and Grace

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘My college is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Recently, the college hosted a gala celebration attended by faculty, staff, students, alumni, retirees, and community members. Unable to attend, the college’s founding president sent a congratulatory video. Two former presidents also attended, one of whom left the college in unpleasant circumstances. Surprised to see her, I was more surprised by the change in her physical appearance. She was smiling, cordial, greeted me warmly, and explained that the physical change is due to a significant weight loss. As I observed her throughout the evening, she appeared at home, interacting comfortably with everone. Called upon to offer remarks in honor of the occasion, she did so with grace and sincerity.

A faculty colleague tells students that education is the process of reinventing oneself. It occurred to me that what I observed in our former president represented more than physical change; this was a courageous effort at reinvention. Considering personal commitment and the emotional risks involved in a decision to change, I realized that everyone is not only free to change, they have the right to reinvent themselves. More important, when one is willing to change, I have a responsibility to “allow” the change because acknowledging change in another person changes me. “The door to reformation is never closed,” my dad would tell me. As a kid, I had no idea what he meant, but I think I’m beginning to understand.

April is National Poetry Month

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Any time is a good time to read or to share a poem, but ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘National Poetry Month, sponsored by the ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Academy of American Poetry since 1996, is an especially joyous opportunity for sharing the magic of poetry. The wonder of the World Wide Web makes enjoyment of poetry possible in ways early poets never dreamed possible, from video recordings of poets reading their poetry, to favorite poems brilliantly read by famous actors, to clever animations of poems. Below are links to three of my favorite poems, each offering a different way to enjoy poetry.

Dylan Thomas. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘The Force the Through The Green Fuse Drives the Flower

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T. S. Eliot. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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Walt Whitman. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

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The ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Academy of American Poetry is a nonprofit organization that supports American poets at all stages of their careers and fosters the appreciation of contemporary poetry.

Bookend!

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘Years ago, in a UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Workshop, I learned a technique called “bookending.” It’s a simple practice designed to keep one writing. The idea is to call someone, preferably a writing buddy, and to tell him or her that you’re going to write. Give as much information as you feel is necessary: how long you plan to write, what you plan to write about, where you plan to write, etc. Then, go write.

When you’ve finished writing, call your writing buddy again to tell him or her that you’ve written. Again, you can provide whatever detail seems appropriate or none at all. It’s okay to leave a voice mail message with the same information. You don’t actually have to talk to a real person. The act of stating to another person or to his or her answering machine that you’re going to write is what’s import. Telling someone makes it real, makes it a commitment.

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘Today, you don’t have to leave a voice mail. You could send an email or text message. You can even post a “tweet” on ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Twitter. Or, post an update on ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Facebook, ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘MySpace, ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘YouTube, whatever. Just to do it.

I’ve discovered that blogging accomplishes the same purpose—for me, at least. Having a progress meter showing that I am writing is an incentive. It doesn’t matter if anyone else in the world sees it or pays attention to it. What’s important is that I know it’s there.

Bookends. They’re not just book props.

“Shitty First Drafts” and the Three Ps

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘Anne Lamott’s advice about a “shitty first draft” is the most liberating advice I’ve gotten about writing. But, internalizing that advice by giving myself permission to write a shitty first draft is not so easy. When I went back to Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, to re-read the chapter on shitty first drafts, I was surprised to discover that a chapter entitled “Perfectionism” follows it.

Now, perfectionism is something about which I know a great deal. Does it surprise anyone to hear me say that I am a perfectionist? Of course not. Why else would I be hanging around writing and writers’ blogs. Perfectionism is the eldest and principal member of a triad of creative energy sapping demons. Together with Procrastination and Paralysis, they form an unholy trinity the sole purpose of which is to block creative expression. Characterized as a fire-breathing dragon using scorched-earth tactics to stifle creativity, Perfection arrives on the creative scene with Procrastination and Paralysis bringing up the rear to ensure the devastation of creativity is complete.

So, it’s easy to understand that getting around such powerful adversaries is more than an act of courage. In the face of fire-breathing dragons, it seems impossible. But, is it?

I decided to try a new tactic. If just saying “No!” can work for Nancy Reagan, it can work for me. So, I pulled myself up straight, picked up my pen, looked the dragon in the eye and—somewhat tentatively, at first—said, “No? No! Perfectionism, I’m not listening to you! I’ve given myself permission to write a truly shitty first draft. I’m just pounding it out.” Emboldened by the tenor of that initial thrust toward creative actualization, I continued. “I’m not even going back to read what I’ve written. I’ve decided I’m writing a hundred thousand words. I’m starting at the beginning and when I reach the end, taking the caterpillar’s advice to Alice, I’m stopping.”

Then, I pounded out the first one thousand twenty-five words. To be sure Perfection and her siblings heard me, I added, “Perfection, get off my dress! You’re ripping the train!”

That done, I thought, “why not claim my progress.” So, I added a progress meter to my blog to track progress on my non-fiction book. And that’s what I’m really after: progress, not perfection. Progress dampens Perfectionism’s fires and renders impotent her followers, Procrastination and Paralysis.

What made the difference? As I began writing, I acknowledged that what I am writing is shitty. It’s a shitty first draft that no one else will ever see. The strength of that simple affirmation is amazing. The words just came and I let them come. When I got to the end of the fourth page, I quickly scanned through what I’d written to note and to correct words underlined with that squiggly red line MS Word puts under misspelled and unrecognized words. I didn’t read what I’d written. I know what’s there and there’s no need to read it. If I start reading, I’ve given the fire-breathing dragon of perfectionism a thin-entering wedge. The next thing I know, I’ll find myself in a non-creative fetal position in a corner of my room.

The bottom line…

A draft of a hundred thousand words begins with the first word.

On Lunch, Gardening… oh, and Writing

Last Wednesday, I had lunch in Valencia with ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘La Belette Rouge. We were introduced by our mutual friend and francophile, the ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Frogblog. I hadn’t given much thought to the meeting. It was Frog’s idea. I knew of Belette as our paths had crossed on ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Francophila in December 2007. Belette recommended Eric Maisel’s ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘A Writer’s Paris which I purchased immediately and read with pleasure. I was preparing to leave for Paris at the end of the month for a two-week writing séjour.

At lunch, we enjoyed delightful conversation that eventually centered on writing. Each of us writes, has a nonfiction book or novel in progress (my “shit” novel, as Belette colorfully described hers), writes personal essays, short stories, and blogs. Each of us is, in some way, not writing. The conversation was lively. Even though, at one point, I tuned out to check email on my Blackberry—you’d think I was the Alice in Wonderland white rabbit, late for something important—I had no idea of the profound affect the conversation was having.

It’s all about gardenging! “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (Voltaire). Seeds are sown. They sprout, grow, and, with careful tending, flourish. Without attention, nothing. Weeds take over, choke out the plants, chaos ensues, and eventually everything withers and dies. So it is with writing. I had no idea our luncheon conversation would sow seeds of inspiration that would lead quickly to renewed interest in writing—something I’d left for dead on the shoulder of life’s highway like road-kill I pass, white rabbit like, on the way to the next important whatever.

I’ve read countless books on writing and written scores of ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Artist’s Way morning pages and ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Writing Down the Bones timed writing exercises. I’ve written (imo) some good stuff. As a matter of curiosity, I checked my morning pages file. I had written daily morning pages with almost religious conviction since the beginning of February 2002. In September 2004, it all came to an end. I was dealing with my elderly mother’s senile dementia. At the point of near dementia myself, I sought the help of a therapist. Actually, I consulted the therapist for reasons other than my mother’s dementia, but my mother’s condition soon took center stage.

The therapy experience was successful in helping me deal with my mother’s dementia and I am grateful I did it. In the course of the therapy, however, the therapist asked if I keep a journal. “I’m a writer,” I said. “Writers write. Of course I keep a journal.” I talked about my journal, my morning pages practice, my novel, my non-fiction book. The therapist casually observed that it sounded as though the morning pages were used more than anything else to beat myself up and that perhaps they were not the best thing for me to be doing. The seed was sown! I stopped writing morning pages and, soon, I stopped keeping my journal. Now, four-and-a-half years later, I haven’t written a word.

I had no idea that lunch with Belette would change that.

First, “it’s never someone [or something] else’s fault that we’re not writing” (Maisel).

Second, not only do I have a novel to write, I have an important non-fiction book in the works that deals with being gay, being married, being a father, being divorced, and managing a healthy, loving, and fulfilling relationship with my ex-wife and with my two daughters. It’s an important book.

Third, to do this writing, I have to “write hard and clear about what hurts” (Hemingway). I must tend my garden! And, I must never loose sight of the fact that “writers do not write to impart knowledge to others; rather, they write to inform themselves” (Guest).

This morning I wrote the first morning pages in four-and-a-half years!