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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nikki, September 1999 - April 18, 2016



Once upon a time, there was a cat mommy who had a bunch of baby kittens at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where your Annie worked. She loved those kittens very much, but one day she had to move them and she left one behind - and that one was you! Annie saw that kitten and said "What a cute little kitten, I need to rescue it!" So she saved you, and kept you in a drawer, and fed you with a baby bottle and made you poop with a wet washcloth! But she couldn't keep you at work, so she took you home and put you in a box. But she couldn't keep you there, because she already had a bunch of kittycats, and she had to go to work. She called her mommy and asked if she could take care of you, and she said "Sure, I'll have Harry come down and pick him up." So I came down and saw you in your box, and said "What a cute little kitten!" And we took you to see your Uncle Ben, and when we were leaving his house, I fell and almost dropped you, but I didn't, though I hurt myself! And then I drove you all the way back from there to here, only I couldn't have the air on because the breeze might kill you! And then your mama saw you and said "What a cute little kitten!"And you were just a fetus-cat, and your mama fed you with a baby bottle and made you poop with a wet washcloth. And your Babki gave you Dolly to keep you company, and you've had Dolly ever since - here she is, right here! And then one day you bit your mommy - bit her! - and you said "I am no longer Nikki the fetus-cat! I am Nick-Nack, rough and tough, brave and bold!" And we all loved you, and we always will.

This was Nikki's bedtime story. It was the story of his life, and I told it to him every night for the last few months as we went to bed. He would sleep in the crook of my arm, like a teddy bear. He would get out of bed several times each night, to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom or do whatever cats do in the middle of the night, but in the morning I would wake to find him back in in my arm in his usual spot.

Nikki was born in early September 1999. Here's the story as my sister told it:

He was less than 24 hours old when I took him. His mother had given birth in the early morning (about 5 am) under the steps of my NASA building, moved the whole litter except for him by 11 am, and by 7 pm, it was clear she wasn't coming back for him. That night was going to be cold, and he surely would have died. My friend Shelly and I took turns keeping him warm, bottle-feeding him, and making him pee and poop, and he lived in our desk drawers at work for a few days. When that became unmanageable, I boarded him at my vet's for a few days. Then Mommy agreed to take him, and I believe you shuttled him up to PA. His eyes weren't open yet, and he wasn't even a week old. He had a long and good life. (By the way, he was the best-looking kitten in the litter, though only the size a credit card.) 

I had already been planning to visit my sister to see an REM concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday, September 10, 1999. I was opposed to taking on another cat. We already had two cats and a dog, and adding a newborn kitten to the mix was going to present a huge workload. But my mom had recently retired and would be able to perform the every-four-hours feedings that would be required for the first few weeks.

He was such a tiny thing when I first saw him, blind and helpless and only a few inches long. He had been checked for contagious diseases like feline leukemia and FIV, so it was safe to introduce him into a household with other cats. That weekend we got geared up for what we would be needing, kitten formula and kitten baby bottles and the like. We took him to visit my uncle and his family in Maryland. While leaving their house, carefully holding the box with the kitten in front of me, I missed a step set into their sidewalk and fell. I smashed both of my knees, but kept my grip on the box. It never touched the ground, and Nikki never knew what had happened. He slept through the whole incident.

I had to drive him back from Maryland to Pennsylvania - a two-and-a-half hour drive in stiflingly hot late summer weather - without air conditioning. The cold draft could have killed him. We both made it.

My mom took on the task of feeding him with a baby bottle and making him poop with a warm wet washcloth. He took to the baby bottle with vigor, but as he bit off nipple after nipple, we felt sorry for all cat-mommies out there. Then one day he decided he was done with the bottle, and bit my mother instead. That was when we started him on solid food.

Nikki lived in a box for the first few weeks of his life. He had two companions: a life-sized cat doll called Mommy, and a small stuffed dog called Dolly.  My grandmother won Dolly - a toy dog with a baseball cap - at bingo in her nursing home in 1998, the year that she died. She intended it for my nephew, but it never got to him. When we got Nikki we put Dolly in the box with him to keep him company. Nikki was initially half Dolly's size, but in a few months he was bigger than her. Dolly was Nikki's favorite toy all through his life. He would carry her around the house by one ear, purr-crying as he walked. Sometimes he would yowl and slam her around - I think he was demanding that she come to life.

Nikki was many things: rough and tough, brave and bold, loving and kind. He had a thick neck, almost as big as his head. He hated wearing a collar, and would simply slip the collar over his head. Then he would take the collars off all the other cats and hide them in odd paces. Every once in a while half a dozen collars would fall out of the rafters in our basement.

For a while he had a habit of opening the cabinets under the kitchen sink and resting on the plumbing. We eventually had to get a child lock to keep him from doing that.

There is a pecking order among the animals in the house. It is based on in-house seniority - not size, or age, or species. The Senior Animal gets priority at the food and water bowls, and enjoys other privileges. When Nikki came into the house, Haley was the Senior Animal, though Ashes was the Senior Cat. Ashes was not particularly welcoming to the new kitten, though Haley took to him right away. Haley died in May 2005, promoting Ashes to Senior Animal - a position he held for less than a year, until his death in April 2006.  Minnie moved into the Senior Animal spot, but she also died in October 2006. Nikky suddenly found himself in the spot of Senior Animal.

For much of the last year of her life, Haley slept with me in my bed. She was at my side much of the time, lying at my feet as I worked on the computer, taking increasingly longer walks early in the morning until she couldn't any more. After she died, Ashes attached himself to me, sleeping on my bed and staying close whenever I was on the computer. When he died, Minnie did not take the spot near the computer, but she did move into my bed. (One of the first signs of Minnie's illness was when she spontaneously fell out of bed and was unable to jump back up.)

After Minnie's death, Nikki attached himself to me. As with most of the Senior Animals before him, he moved into my bed and took a spot next to me when I worked on the computer.

Just before Minnie died, we had taken in a stray. She brought our cat count to four, along with another cat my brother had rescued back in 2000. Then we took in Scooter in the Summer of 2007. And then, in 2009, we rescued some orphaned feral kittens as quickly as we could before a neighbor could poison them all, as he had poisoned their mothers and some older ferals.

Suddenly Nikki felt his position as Senior Animal threatened. For a while he boycotted coming to bed with me, after I had taken some of the kittens into my room for a night. Eventually he relented, and came to be friendly to the younger cats - as well as the older (but still junior) cats and dog we inherited from another neighbor when she died.

For the last few years, Hershey had also slept in my bed. He slept at my side, often on top of the covers, pinning me in bed until I could convince him to move. Nikki slept alongside him, sharing his warmth but still huddling against me. When Hershey died, Nikki began searching for a new sleeping position. He experimented with sleeping at my head, then on the nightstand near my head, then on my head, then on my back. He eventually found his comfort spot, sleeping in the crook of my arm like a teddy bear, his head pressed against mine. He would jump out of bed several times each night, but would return to his spot each time.

As Nikki began to show symptoms in late 2015, I was able to monitor him closely in bed. I felt the increasing prominence of his spine. I listened to his breathing and his heartbeat. Most importantly, I was able to give him his medication last thing before we went to sleep and first thing when we got up.

In his last week Nikki was showing weakness but still able to jump up and down from the bed. I worried that soon he would lose that ability. But more than that, I was afraid that by having access to the whole house, Nikki had too many places where he could hide away and die. One morning - the Thursday before he died, I think - I woke up and he was not next to me. I called his name and heard muffled crying in response. I found him under the bed. I decided that we would have to start sleeping somewhere else.

I set up a sleeping spot for him in our parlor. I laid out numerous blankets for him, as well as the towel-covered pillow that had been a favorite sleeping spot for him when I wasn't in bed. I laid out a sleeping bag for myself, though I added a folded out twenty-five year old foam sleeper chair after the first night. In this way I was still able to sleep alongside him for the last nights of his life.

Each morning I was surprised to see him still alive. Friday morning, Saturday morning. Still alive. Still drinking on his own. He had lost interest in eating sometime in late February, until we started offering him different, cheaper types of cat food, which he ate with gusto for a few weeks. By Easter he had stopped eating again, until we offered him some leftover ham. He loved the ham. After a week or so we ran out of Easter ham had to go out and buy more.

He had lost so much weight, nearly three-quarters of what he had weighed in late 2015. His body had become nearly flat. Yet still he went on.

I think he stopped eating on Saturday.

Still he hung on. Scooter had died so quickly, relatively speaking. Nikki was not. But we could not bring ourselves to take him to be put to sleep. Not because of reluctance on our part. On his last few trips to the vet he had been utterly terrified. We were not going to put him through that. I would not let him die in fear.

I was amazed to see him up and about Sunday morning. He seemed to rally at night, and prowled the house a bit. He would drink water, and find a place to pee. He would find a comfortable place to curl up. In the morning, he would usually be hovering over me, or sleeping nearby.

Sunday he did not drink. He did not eat. He had stopped jumping up and down on the chairs. He barely changed his position throughout the day.

Sunday night I told him his bedtime story again, as I had every night. As he lay on the floor next to me with his back to me, I placed Dolly, his favorite toy, on the other side in front of him. After a while he reached out and put his arm around her.

I woke up extra early Monday morning, expecting to find him dead, expecting to need to take his dead body to the vet's to be cremated. But he was alive, awake, and aware again. I took my shower early and spent a good long while sitting with him before I had to go to work. I handed him off to my mom, kissed him, told him he was my best friend, told him that I would love him forever.

We agreed that if he was still alive Tuesday morning, we would take him to be put to sleep.

I imagined what it would be like. I remembered what it was like when Hershey died. I imagined stopping the procedure before the first injection, so I could tell him his bedtime story one last time.

He died Monday afternoon at about 4:00. Dolly was with him when he died in my mother's arms. I stopped for two big bags of ice after work. Set him up in a bathtub overnight. Placed a towel on the bags of ice, placed him on the towel, covered him with the blanket.

I dreamed of him that night. Dreams of him dead and watching me, following me with his head after I took him to be cremated, the vet explaining to me that that this was perfectly normal.

I woke up Tuesday morning dreading what I would have to do. I took a shower, had breakfast. Wrapped his body in a towel and put him in the car. Drove him to the vet's and made the arrangements.

This morning we picked up his ashes. The box is tiny. There wasn't much left to cremate. I will put Dolly alongside him. As they were at the beginning, so they will be now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Scooter, July 2007 - March 23, 2016

[Scooter_02162008.JPG]

Scooter died in my arms today.

He started to show some symptoms a few weeks ago - vomiting brown bile (more often than usual) and a loss of appetite. A visit to the vet two weeks ago didn't yield many answers, but he was given a shot and we left with some stuff to treat the possible causes. Over the next week his loss of appetite worsened, an we took him back for an emergency visit last week. Tests showed some slight worsening in some measured items from the previous week - most worryingly, the loss of half a pound - and he also seemed to have developed a cold. He received hydration, and we left with more meds and a plan to monitor and schedule a follow-up.

He got worse in the subsequent days. On Sunday after work I spent several hours holding him as he dozed, listening to his breathing, feeling his heart beat. He seemed weak, but he was still mobile, in his own way, and was able to get around on his own. I repeated the ritual on Monday after work, and while he seemed weaker, he was still able to get around on his own a little. But, unlike the previous evening, he would now groan whenever his position was changed. On Tuesday morning we arranged another appointment for Wednesday, today, my first day off. By Tuesday evening, the last day of my work week, he was weaker still, no longer able to support his own weight, instead lying with his legs splayed out. (We noticed him lying like this on his second visit to the vet.) He wasn't groaning anymore, but instead was exhibiting what seemed to be trembling seizures.

I had a dental appointment Wednesday morning, but when I came home I picked Scooter up and held him again. His breathing was shallower than ever. He was not aware of his surroundings, and was mostly motionless, except for the occasional tremor and "questing" behavior - the sort of behavior animals display when they are looking for a place to die.

It seemed likely that his health was collapsing, that he might not even make it to his 2:00 appointment.

I soothed him as best I could while my mom got ready to head out. I talked to him, and sang to him, and called him by all his nicknames ("Scooter Pie," "Scooter MacGruder," and "Scoot McShmoot," among others.) I recounted for him the story of his life. I told him he was a good boy. I told him we hoped he could stay with us, but if he had to go, that was OK, because we didn't want him to be in any pain. I kissed him dozens of times on the top of his head. I cried, a lot.

He began seizing again, and then questing.

I called my mom over. She wasn't quite ready to go. She petted Scooter and talked to him a bit. Then I told her to finish getting dressed so we could go. It was 1:00. It takes fifteen to twenty minutes to get to the vet's. I didn't think Scooter would make it.

As my mom turned to go, Scooter seemed to watch her, even though I don't know if his eyes were focusing on anything. And then he just...stopped.

I didn't call out to my mom. I didn't yell for Scooter to come back, as I had done when our cat Josie died in my arms fifteen years before.

I watched him for a while. Listened for breathing, felt for a pulse. Blew on his ears. Nothing. He was in my arms, his face near mine. I closed his eyes as best I could.

My mom came back out, ready to go. I told her what had happened.

We headed up to the vet's, now going up to drop Scooter off for cremation. I called ahead as we pulled out of the driveway to let them know that we wouldn't be needing the 2:00 appointment after all.

The vet asked our permission to perform an autopsy. He was curious as to why a cat who, despite chronic health issues, died so quickly while displaying so few symptoms. A few hours later he called with the results: vascular angiosarcoma of the liver. Not much that could have been done, other than surgery and chemotherapy, with a very poor prognosis.

Here are some photos of Scooter through his life:

[Scooter_07172007.jpg]
July 17, 2007

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August 25, 2007

[Scooter_and_Andy_09212007.jpg]
September 21, 2007

[Scooter_bites.jpg]
Thanksgiving Day, 2007

[Scooter_02162008.JPG]
February 16, 2008

[Scooter_PhotoBomb.jpg]
September 20, 2008

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Springtime by the numbers

I wrote this poem on the last day of Spring in 2013, two hours before I read it at an open mic. It works just as well on the first day of Spring, which is today. I've made one tiny edit in this version.

Springtime by the numbers

A three at the top of the page meant
cold, windy days, wet weather,
fish on Fridays and giving up candy

Four brought with it brighter days
and frosty mornings
a feast of chocolate
and a sense of change

Five meant things were wrapping up
the tests had a special sort of urgency
Flowers for the Virgin
put there by little girls in white dresses
Sunny mornings and sunnier evenings
that beckoned us to put our homework aside and play

Six, though, six was special
even the nuns didn't feel like working anymore
and they gave us extra sessions of recess to break up the day
A six at the top of a page or a test or a quiz thrilled you
and made you feel like it was a bad joke
Blue skies and cool breezes
Afternoons after school spent on the swing set
listening to the birds and watching the clouds drift by
and wanting to stay there forever.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Pennsylvania Primary registration deadline

Pennsylvania has a "closed" Primary system - registered Democrats vote for the Democratic nominee, registered Republicans vote for the Republican nominee. If you're planning to vote in the 2016 PA Primary, you need to be registered and turn eighteen by Primary day, April 26, 2016. Registration deadline is thirty days before the Primary, which puts it on March 27, 2016 - Easter Sunday. (CORRECTION: The deadline is MONDAY, MARCH 28.) If you want to vote in the Primary, make sure you're registered before then!

You can register to vote online here:

http://www.votespa.com/portal/server.pt/community/home/13514

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A letter to Senator Pat Toomey, R-PA

Submitted via Pat Toomey's contact page. Is your Senator one of the obstructionists refusing to consider President Obama's nominee to fill the seat on the Supreme Court left vacant upon the death of Antonin Scalia? Send them a performance review of your own. Hey, you're paying their salary, you get to give them a job evaluation!

Don't know who your Senator is or how to contact them? You can look them up here.


Senator Toomey, speaking as your employer, I must express serious concerns with your job performance.

In November of 2012, the voters of the United States of America made clear their choice for President. Among his duties is the responsibility to nominate candidates for the Supreme Court upon the death or resignation of a member. There is currently a vacancy on that Court, and President Barack Obama has announced a nominee to fill that position.


You have stated for the record, "it is wise to give the American people a more direct voice in the selection and confirmation of the next justice." But this has already happened. The American people chose someone to make these nominations - not for three-quarters of a Presidential term, but for the entire term. Yet you and several of your colleagues have chosen to disregard the choice of the American people, and have instead discovered a new interpretation of your job duties that allows you to, in effect, do nothing.


Be aware that your employers are scrutinizing your job performance very closely, and other candidates are being considered to replace you. You have certain job expectations, and would be well advised to meet them. Or you may be hearing, to quote a certain reality reality TV personality and Pizza Hut pitchman, "You're fired."


Monday, March 14, 2016

Orion Amongst the Clouds


Orion the Hunter stalks through the post-twilight clouds of the southern sky, preparing to fight Taurus the Bull, whose head (represented by the V of the Hyades) can be faintly seen in the upper right. The hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor are the two pairs of bright stars in the lower left. Photo taken shortly after sunset on Friday, March 11, 2016.

First Robin sighting, March 14, 2016

It's not Spring yet, so I won't call it the First Robin of Spring.  Spotted around 5:50 PM on Monday, March 14, 2016 on the way home from work, on a fence on Front Street in the Hanover Section of Nanticoke.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Roman's Candy, Wilkes-Barre

Nearly eleven years ago I wrote about Diamond's Candy Shoppe in Nanticoke, the source of my favorite chocolate since I was a wee lad. Diamond's began closing sporadically shortly after that, then closed its doors for good about five years ago. Since them we've gotten our holiday chocolate from a few other sources, but mainly from Roman's Kitchen Made Candy in Wilkes-Barre.



Roman's is located at 40 South Regent Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18706, and the phone is 570-823-7834. This is a small operation - basically a one-woman show. It's a small, locally-owned business, in a world that is trying to squeeze out small, independent businesses. I got to have a nice conversation with the owner about the state of the industry, including how her chocolate supplier was absorbed by a huge multinational corporation that then vastly increased the minimum order size.


Roman's is only open for a few weeks before the major chocolate holidays of Christmas and Easter. (I'm not even sure if she was opened for Valentine's Day!) If you want something specific, or if you want to be assured of getting the quantity you're hoping for, you might want to call ahead.


Roman's features filled and solid milk chocolates in all shapes and sizes. They also have a selection of dark chocolate, white chocolate, and even some peanut butter shapes like the rabbits on the upper right.


These cows are reminiscent of Northeastern Pennsylvania's most famous cow, Three-O-Nina!


I could just see the folks from the Dinosaur Toy Blog have a go at these chocolate Stegosauruses: "The oversized head lacks cheeks, while the dorsal plates are arranged in a single line, reflecting outdated reconstructions of the genus. The scutes embedded in the sides are a nice touch, though a quick check under the tail reveals the usual lack of a cloacal opening."


One of my friends asked online if the Scottie Dog might be a tribute to Fala, Franklin D. Roosevelt's dog. I don't know, but it's possible that the molds date to the middle of the last century. Meanwhile, the chocolate cross is a staple of all Easter Baskets around here, though I understand such confections are frowned upon in other areas. What could be more appropriate for the season than to eat the symbol of the Crucifixion in delicious solid milk chocolate?

If you want to support a locally-owned business, or a woman-owned business, or an independent business in a world full of soulless mega-corporations, or if you just like good chocolate, be sure to check out Roman's Kitchen Made Candy in Wilkes-Barre!

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Dream: Dolly S. in the Car

Had a dream about a girl I think I used to know the other night. I had taken my mom into Scranton for some reason, and was waiting for her in the car. I was parked on Courthouse Square on Washington Street, which in my dream was a two-way street. I had been sitting there for a while when I saw a car pull out of a parking space two cars in front of me. It was a red Mini Cooper, and the driver executed a perfect U-turn to drive toward and past me. I glanced over and saw the driver was this girl - woman - person - let's call her Dolly S. - who I've known for over five years, and whose life I was pretty heavily involved in for much of the last two and a half. She was driving the car (in the waking world, I had planned to teach her to drive once she got her learner's permit, but she never got around to that), but was hunched over and leaning on the shoulder of her boyfriend - now fiancee. They drove past without either of them noticing me.

And that was pretty much it. It wasn't an especially odd dream. What is odd is that in all the time I've known her, including the latter part where I was performing the duties of both a parent and a responsible boyfriend, I never had any dreams of her that I can recall. Now, after she has gotten engaged and I have probably run my last errand for her and had my last meal with her, now I have had a random dream in which she makes a cameo. I guess that's the way these things go.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Readings from the February 27, 2016 Writers' Showcase (plus bonus material!)

These are the pieces I presented at the Winter edition of the Writers' Showcase on February 27, 2016. Most of them have been slightly revised and edited from previous versions. I have also included some bonus material that I had to cut for reasons of time. Enjoy!

Poem: Love Anyway 

It was pieces like this that gave me a reputation as a love poet. When I originally presented it, it was sandwiched between two poems presented by other poets of the "waaah, somebody broke my heart, life sucks, all is despair" variety. The host of the reading actually pointed out the contrast.

This poem was written for me, and addressed to me. I quote it to myself often. I need to be reminded of the things I said here.

You stand there like a clown in a spotlight without a broom
because you love her
more than you can say,
more than you have ever loved anyone else,
more than anyone has ever loved anyone else,
and she does not love you

She loves him
and he has no poetry in his soul

Love her anyway
even if she will never love you

Because the opposite of love is not hate
the opposite of love is not indifference
the opposite of love is resentment
bitterness and anger at being denied that which you know you deserve
that which is given freely to one so undeserving

Love becomes you in a way resentment does not
love is not the answer
love isn't even the question
love simply is

Love her anyway
because you love her
and whether she loves you or not
or continues to love him
him, the one with no poetry in his soul.
you will have loved greatly and grandly and without hope of reward
and the universe will have become a better place for it

So take off the greasepaint
and the shabby hat
forget the broom
step out of the spotlight
put aside the resentment
and love her anyway.


Poem: blossom

That poem and a few others like it gave me a reputation as a love poet. I tried to break out of this stereotype and escape the pigeonhole by focusing on some other themes. Nature, for example.

The following is a true story.

I saw a black blossom floating in a bird bath once
it had red and pink petals spreading out in the water
and a long pink stem behind
and, on closer inspection, little feet attached to little legs
and I realized it wasn't a blossom at all
but the back half of a rodent
a mouse, or rat, or (as I would later determine)
a vole, a cute chubby little creature with a fondness for the cocoa hulls
I was using to mulch my blueberries.

It had been going about its vole-ish business one day
when some keen-eyed bird spotted it
a hawk, most likely
and snatched it up to have it for lunch
But the rodent struggled mightily, fighting for its life,
forcing the bird to expend energy just to hold onto this bit of food
and in the end it decided that half a vole was better than none
and it bit the vole in two, flying off with the still-struggling front
and leaving the back to fall into a birdbath
where its guts spread out like red and pink petals in the water
and its tail stretched out like a stem
and it floated there, waiting for me to find it


Story: Sunset and Shadow

This story was first written down longhand in a small blue notebook in July 2013. It was based on what would have been actual events, a planned date from back in 2010. I never actually met the person this story was written about in person until late 2011. She disappeared in late 2012, and I spent quite a bit of time trying to find her again. I finally did, toward the end of 2013, by which time I had written and rewritten this story several times. 

We get together early on a Saturday afternoon in late January in a bookstore.  Seeing Lori in person after all our conversations online is something of a shock, finally realizing just how far apart we are in age. She is small and pixie-ish, with bleached white hair and eyes so dark they might be black. Her skin is pale and her face is alive and shining.  She is dressed in a sort of Salvation Army chic, in a green prairie skirt and frilly cream blouse that hide her tiny figure, wrapped in a black wool jacket with shoulder pads that would look preposterous on anyone else. A black beret, a scarf that might be a keffiyeh, and chunky black boots.  I know she is a brilliant writer just from what she had put in her ad, and the stories I've found on her blog confirm this. She looks like a giddy little girl, but her writing has a darkness and maturity that say there is much more to her.

I wonder how I look to her. I think I look close enough to the photos I posted on my site, as she does to hers. But I really don't know what she sees with those big, dark eyes.

We drink hot chai and talk about writing, and our favorite authors, and our biggest influences. I ask her about school but she doesn't want to talk about it much. She pries a few stories from me about my days in college, a quarter of a century ago.

We have been talking for well over an hour and haven't made any plans for the rest of the day. When she excuses herself to use the bathroom I order a strawberry parfait, something that looks like one of the things she has posted on her blog. Lori returns to our table and one of the staff brings it over in a tall glass with two long spoons.  After dessert we wander the bookstore for a while, pointing out books and authors to each other. I find an annotated edition of one of her favorite books and offer to buy it for her, but she takes it from me and insists she will pay for it herself. Fine, I say, taking the other copy from the shelf, laughing. Now we will both have one.

We exit the bookstore holding our identical purchases and step into the icy late-afternoon air.  I suggest we could drive around and continue our conversation. A glance at the clouds smeared across the western sky gives me an idea. The sun will be setting in an hour or so, and I know a spot where it will put on a beautiful display. For a moment I think she might not want to go, or might want to take her own car, wherever her car is. But she agrees and we both get into mine.

The sun is dipping behind the clouds as we drive. We are heading west, so the sun is mostly in front of us. Even through my sunglasses I can see the sun-dogs forming, mock suns positioned on either side of the real one, produced by the sort of ice crystals present in certain clouds. I point them out to Lori, and she pulls out her phone - wrapped in a Hello Kitty case - and takes a picture. Her thumbs fly as she types something on to the screen in a way I can't even begin to emulate. And then she does something else - posts the picture online, to her blog or Facebook or somewhere. I feel the generation gap yawning between us.

I have to maneuver a bit to get where I want us to be, but finally we get there. It is a steel truss bridge, more than seventy years old but still safe and sturdy enough to bear the traffic that crosses it. I had made it collapse once, in one of my stories, plunging dozens of cars and their drivers into the river below. We writers wield such power.

"Here?" she asks, as we park in a dirt lot at one end of the bridge. Her tone says she isn't afraid, just curious.

"Not here," I reply. "On the bridge. About halfway across we'll have a great view of the sunset."

She gets out of the car, pushing her beret down with one hand and clutching her book with the other. The bag crackles like it is threatening to shatter. I am glad we are both dressed for the weather. It gets cold on the bridge in winter. Cold, and windy.

As we step onto the walkway Lori looks up, then around. "You've taken pictures here," she says. "The ice on the river, and the shadows on the ice."

"Yep," I say. I posted those photos half a year before I met her online. She has done her homework, reading my old blogs.

We walk out two hundred and fifty feet, or so - I've always been bad at estimating distances. Cars pass by once in a while, clattering and banging over the deck plates of the bridge, but the drivers don't even notice us.

The sun hasn't started its show yet.

"Here is good," I say. Across the deck and through the girders and cables we can see downriver . The Susquehanna flows from east to west along this stretch, so we have a relatively clear view of the sunset. The sun is sinking behind an old, disused railroad bridge and over the trees and rolling hills that edge one bank. The scene is reflected in the river below, where water flows between great broken sheets of ice.

But none of that is what I want to show her.

"There," I say, looking but not pointing. "Above the sun. Do you see that patch of light pointing straight up, almost like a candle flame? Unless I'm reading the clouds wrong, that's going to stretch out into a sun pillar."

She looks at the bright white blur on the western horizon. The sun moves lower and lower behind the clouds. As the minutes pass the column of light above the sun stretches up, and up, looking like a biblical pillar of fire. It gradually deepens to orange and then red as the sun sinks lower on the horizon.

Lori slides the handle of the bag from the bookstore over her wrist, raises her Hello Kitty camera and snaps a few more pictures. "I've never seen that before," she says.

"Most people haven't," I reply, and immediately realize I have relegated her to the realm of "most people." "Sun pillars aren't that common, so they don't happen with every sunset. And we're all so busy, how often do you get to watch a sunset?" I say, trying to recover.

"'How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?'" she says, quoting The Sheltering Sky. "'Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.'" Or maybe she is quoting Brandon Lee's quote of The Sheltering Sky. He was dead shortly after that interview.

"There's something else," I say. "Turn around. Look east."

A beautiful soft pink glow stretches across the eastern sky, just above the horizon. Above it, the sky is only a little darker than it had been a few minutes ago. Below it, the sky is a dark blue-gray above the cold Susquehanna.

"What is that?" Lori asks, raising her phone to take another picture.

"It's called the Belt of Venus," I tell her. "The pink glow is the light of every sunset that's happening just beyond the horizon. The sunlight reddens as it passes through the thickest part of the atmosphere. We're seeing that red sunlight reflected back at us."

"And the dark part?"

"That's the shadow of the Earth. The Earth is casting a shadow through its own atmosphere. It'll rise, higher and higher, and become night."

She taps some more information into her phone. I find that habit almost annoying. I want her to be here now, but she is busy sharing each moment with the world.

I've been standing beside her, on her left as we watched the sunset, on her right when we turned to watch the light show in the east. But as we watch and talk, I move behind her.

Lori is short, nearly a  foot shorter than me. I place my hands on her shoulders, on those ridiculous shoulder pads, Then I gradually slide them across so I am hugging her from behind, each hand on her opposite shoulder.

We stand like that in silence for a few minutes. A car drives past.  I barely notice it.  The wind blows a bit from behind us, but I shield Lori from the chill. We watch the colors in the eastern sky rise and begin to darken and fade.

"So what would you like to do next?" I ask.

She turns to face me, breaking my hold. She puts her phone back in her coat pocket, but the book in its crinkly beige bag still hangs from her wrist. She looks up at me, her nearly-black eyes looking into mine.

Lori reaches up and clutches the lapels of my black longcoat. She tugs me down gently, stands on the toes of her boots, and kisses me on the cheek.

"You're very sweet," she says. Continuing to stare at me, she adds "Thank you for the sunset, and the shadow. But I have to go now."

I am dumbstruck. Crestfallen. And a million other words that only apply in such a situation. Finally I speak. "I'll drive you back to the bookstore, if that's what you want."

She smiles and shakes her head. "I have a ride."

The car that drove past us is stopped at the end of the bridge, next to mine.

"Goodbye," she says. She releases her grip on my coat and slides her hands slowly down my chest, stopping briefly to take my hands in hers. Then she lets go, turns, and walks briskly to the waiting vehicle.

Lori gets to the end of the bridge, opens the door to the waiting car, and gets in. I can't tell if she looks back at me. Maybe she waves.

The car drives off and I am left alone on the bridge, as the last traces of sunset fade from the sky.


We never did watch the sun set from the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge, which is where the climax of this story is set, but we drove across it many times. She's moved on with her life now. A part of me is still on that bridge, watching the tail lights fade.

Last year I stood on this bridge in late January, which is when this story is set, and I thought to myself: Goddamn, it's cold up here. Those two would have frozen to death pretty quickly.


Poem: dancer

When one muse leaves, sometimes you spend years looking for another. Sometimes you latch onto the nearest candidate who fits the bill to serve as your new muse. And sometimes surprising things happen as a result. 


Don't look at her.

OK, look, but don't touch
those are the rules
just give her a dollar and let her go

She dances
in a schoolgirl's outfit
plaid skirt, white blouse, necktie
high heels
and a garter

and when she dances
does she remember twirling in front of a mirror
a hairbrush for a microphone
lip-syncing to the radio?

Now she dances on a smoky stage
smiling down on perverts and skeeves and hungry-eyed men
men who wonder what she tastes like
men who wonder how much she costs

She's not for sale.  You can't buy her.
That smile isn't for you.
This isn't her. This is just something she does for money.
It doesn't define her. Don't think
you can sum her up in a single word.

She's not for sale
but twenty-five dollars buys you a private dance
five minutes alone with her
Look, but don't touch,
she can touch you, but you can't touch her
those are the rules
And don't think it means anything. It doesn't.
That smile isn't for you.

When she counts her tips in-between sets
does she remember sitting on the floor in her communion dress
counting the dollars from all her cards
dreaming about the things she would buy with that money?

Don't judge her. You have no right.
You don't know her. You know nothing about her.
This isn't her. This is just something she does for money.

Back on the stage
she struts to the beat
for the perverts and skeeves and hungry-eyed men
she twirls around the pole
wearing nothing but high heels
and a garter
and a smile

That smile isn't for you. She's not for sale.
Look, but don't touch.
You have no right to judge.
This isn't her.
This doesn't define her.
You don't know her.
You know nothing about her.

That smile isn't for me.
I don't know her.
I know nothing about her.


*BONUS MATERIAL!*


Here's the brief biography I submitted to host Brian Fanelli:

Harold Jenkins double-majored in Physics and Philosophy at the University of Scranton, where his poetic efforts were thwarted by a professor who struck through every line of his submission for the literary quarterly and then admitted she had no idea what a "Mayfly" was, anyway. He spent twenty years in industry before taking up writing again. In late 2011 he accidentally encountered the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective  at the Vintage Theater - twice - and decided to join them. With their encouragement and feedback he refined his skills as a short story writer and began writing poetry again, presenting his work at open mics throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. Many of his poems and short stories can be found on his blog, Another Monkey (anothermonkey.blogspot.com.)


Poem: the Mayflies

This is the poem alluded to in my bio. It was written in 1987 or so, for the Esprit, the University of Scranton's literary quarterly. It was inspired by times I would spend waiting on the top floor of St. Thomas Hall for an early-afternoon class to start. The class started at an odd time, so when I stood there I could look down on the Commons below and across to the now-demolished-and-replaced Student Center. As the hour approached, I could see students scurrying from the dining halls and across the Commons to get to their classes. Every day I noticed the same pattern: A trickle of early students who had distant classes or wanted to get to class early, gradually increasing to the main crush of students all trying to get from here to there at the same time. The crush tailed off, and then - every time - a few stragglers would rush out of the Student Center, frantically trying to get to class on time. Not always the same students, but usually the same number of students running as the time before.

It made me think about how human behavior could be statistically described. Sure, we like to imagine we have free will, and as individuals we don't necessarily perform the same actions in predictable ways. But when viewed as a whole, a group of people operating under certain conditions will tend to repeat the same patterns to within a certain level of predictability, even if the individuals doing the specific actions change from run to run.


to the floodlight of statistical probability We are drawn
to singe Our wings and worry not
and We live but for a day
doing much and learning little
and those that come after Us
will remember Us
as We recall the hollow husks that were Us yesterday


The adviser for the quarterly called me into her office to review my submission. She had crossed out and "corrected" all of my e.e. cummings-esque nonstandard capitalization. (Apparently she had not noticed that the only capitalized words outside of the title - which started with an uncapitalized "the" - were self-referential pronouns.) She also changed the words in every line, crossing out the last one completely and replacing it with "We remember the dead." After going over these changes she looked at me and said "And what the heck is a Mayfly, anyway?" Realizing what I was up against, I withdrew my submission.


Poem: What I want

Another love poem. Fairly popular. I never knew what to say in the first line, though.

You ask me what I want to do
So I tell you:
I want to make love to you until the last stars burn out
I want to dance with you in the snow under flickering auroras
I want to sing Leonard Cohen with you while we stand on a bridge
and watch the sun set
I want to eat you up, body and soul,
make every part of you a part of me.
And I want to go bowling
and play miniature golf,
Love, honor, obey
protect and serve
live happily ever after
from this day forward
'til death do us part
and then for a few eternities more

And maybe you're just asking me where I'd like to go for lunch
but you asked me what I want to do
So I'm telling you.


Story: One Friday Evening in a Parking Lot

A true story. This actually happened, mostly, on the night of April 19, 2013. Some bits have been slightly punched-up. I'll let you figure out what those are.

As I pulled into the supermarket parking lot a bedraggled orange cat dashed through my headlight beams. It looked wet - it had been pouring just an hour before, and the asphalt glistened in the darkness.. I parked my car and headed for the entrance. Ice cream, I thought. Belgian Waffle mix.

Hey, could you get me something while you're in there? a voice said.

I stopped, looked around. There was no one else in the lot. Nothing but some cars and the wet cat now sheltering in a cart corral.

I'm hungry, came the voice again. Couldja get me a can of something?

The cat was staring at me.

I hadn't had much to drink that night. Two beers, part of a third. Not enough to get me drunk. I turned to continue into the store.

Something nice, the voice said, fainter now. Not that store brand crap.

I was a little unnerved as I grabbed a cart. I didn't need a full-sized cart, but I didn't feel like carrying around containers of ice cream in my hands. I got two cartons of Rocky Road, still on sale, the one and a half quart size. I began to search for the aisle with pancake syrup. Find the syrup, and the waffle mix might be nearby.

I stopped at the pet food aisle.

That cat did look hungry. Maybe it would still be outside.

I found a can of the stuff my cats like. Just one can. If the cat was still out there, I'd give it to him. If not, my cats would eat it.

A few minutes later I headed to the checkout. Two containers of Rocky Road ice cream. One box of Belgian Waffle mix. One can of cat food. Nearly ten o'clock on a Friday night. I wondered what the high school girl behind the register thought.

As I walked to my car I looked over at the cart corral. The orange cat was still there, staring at me.

Didja get it? a voice asked.

I reached into my bag and pulled out the can of cat food. I began to open it as I walked past my car towards the cat.

Just leave it and go, the voice said. The cat backed away as I approached.

I pulled the lid off the can, set can and lid on the pavement, and took a few steps back.

The cat scrambled over to the can and took a few tentative nibbles, then began to gobble away.

Oh, damn, this is good, I heard, muffled.

The cat stopped and looked up at me.

Well, whaddya want? Go away. I'm eating.

I kept watching. The cat arched its back slightly.

Seriously. Go away. I'll hurt you if you stay.

I took another step back. The cat continued to stare at me, then began eating again, more warily.

We were done here. I headed back to my car. I wanted to go home, maybe have some ice cream.

Hey, came a voice as I got back into my car. Thanks. Thank you for the food.

I tossed my bag on the passenger seat, started the car and pulled out of the lot. As I drove away I looked at the cart corral one last time. I could see the cat still there, eating.

I went home and had some ice cream.


Story: Performance Review

Besides a soul, what does the devil get out of making a deal with someone? I decided to explore that question in this story. It was actually based on two very toxic people I knew, both of whom were in a writing group with me. One was someone who, despite being a) married and b) a total asshole, made it a point to try to sleep with every young, attractive woman who joined our group  - and usually left shortly after being subjected to his attentions. The sad part is, he was occasionally successful. The other was another total asshole, this one a vile narcissist - imagine Donald Trump minus the hair and the money. His behavior during a post-reading double-date of sorts with him and his then-girlfriend, during which he pried incessantly into the personal details of the friend I had just brought back into our group after a long absence, and was tediously annoying to the waitress at the Waffle House, inspired some of the dialogue and characteristics of the handler in this story. (After repeated warnings, my friend eventually lashed out at him, rendering him speechless, which is quite an accomplishment.)

This story was requested by a friend at the last Writers' Showcase, but it alone would use up my allotted time, so I had to shelve it.


I dress by the dim gray light of dawn coming through the closed drapes of the hotel room. Sara is still asleep. I don't bother to kiss her goodbye. I have no intention of seeing her again. I pull out my wallet and toss a few twenties onto the nightstand near her head. She doesn't need the money, but neither do I. Maybe I just want to make her feel like a whore.

I pull on my jacket and notice a vibration from my phone. I take it out and read the message:

COME MEET YOUR GRAMPA AT THE SILVER QUEEN. 7:30 - A

My grandfather has been dead for over twenty years. Algolagnus has a sick sense of humor.


I recognize him as soon as I enter the crowded diner. I barely knew him as a boy, but have vivid memories of his laugh, and his voice, and the crushing grip of his handshake. He looks up at me - the thing wearing his face looks up at me - and smiles broadly. "Jimmy, my boy, it's been too long!" he roars, loud enough to be heard across the room. "Come join me for some breakfast!"

I slip into the booth across from my handler. He doesn't have any food in front of him, not yet, but he has a newspaper and a huge mug of coffee. The empty sugar packets scattered on the sticky table show it wasn't his first.

"What do you want?" I ask the demon.

My grandfather's face smiles, but the flesh ripples slightly, as though being seen through water. "Jimmy, is that any way to talk to your dear departed grandfather in public? Let's not make a scene. As far as these good people know, we're just having a friendly breakfast together." He pushes a menu toward me. "So how was the little slut you had last night?"

"That's none of your damned business," I say, even though I know that that is exactly wrong.

Algolagnus laughs hollowly, not at all like my grandfather's deep, barking laugh. "Of course it is," he says. "Everything you do is my business, until the day you die and we collect on your contract. She looked pretty. She's well-connected, you know. Her husband is a very important man." He daubs at his mouth with a napkin. "Very involved in social circles, charitable work. Sit up straight, here comes the waitress. Make a good impression."

The waitress is young, pretty. Nice tits, big eyes, blonde hair disheveled in the cutest way. Her hips say she might have had a kid. No ring on her finger, thank God, or whoever.

"Hello again, Meghan-with-an-H," the horror sitting across from me says jovially. He turns to me. "Spells it in the authentic Irish way, dontcha know. Isn't that something!" He turns back to her. "This fine young gentleman is my nephew Jimmy I was telling you about. He's decided to join me for breakfast. Would you be so kind as to take his order?"


"Sure. What would you like?" she asks, in a voice that is sweetness and innocence and sunshine. She is possibly falling in love with me already.

"Bacon and eggs, over easy," I say, not looking up from my menu. "White toast, light, with butter."

"Coffee?"

Yes, I think, coffee would be good right now. I glance at the demon's feast across from me. He doesn't care much for food, but goes mad for coffee. He once confided to me that the goatherd who discovered coffee had made a deal of his own, one that had resulted in centuries of misery for his descendants. Everything has a price.

"No," I reply. "Grapefruit juice, please."

"I'm so sorry, we're fresh out. Is orange juice OK?"

Of course you are, I think. "Yes, that will be fine," I tell her.

"Be right out," she says. Looking at my "grandfather" - well, I guess he's my "uncle" now - she asks "Are you sure I can't get you anything, honey?"

"Just some more coffee, and maybe a slice of that cherry pie. No point in watching my figure at my age!" He laughs a counterfeit of my grandfather's laugh. She takes down his order and slips away.

"She likes you," he hisses at me. "Play your cards right and you'll be banging Meghan-with-an-H as soon as her shift's over."

"Maybe I don't feel like it," I say. "Maybe I'm tired of this game."

"You can quit any time you like," he says through a tight grin. "We'll just collect immediately."

The world behind Algolagnus falls away like a dropped curtain. My grandfather's face fades, replaced by something that is shaped all wrong, with lopsided tusks and horns and eyes out of a nightmare, half-seen through a greasy smear. I smell the sweet odor of maggots. I taste rotten potatoes. I hear babies tossed on bonfires. I feel the embrace of a dinosaur's teeth on my chest.

And then...nothing. Nothing at all. No sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch. Nothing. Utter nothingness..

Nothing but an endless longing for something that will never come.

The vision fades. My grandfather smiles at me from across the booth.

"You ready for that, boy?" he asks. "Or do you want to keep screwing whores who find you irresistible?"

I shake my head. This isn't what I had bargained for. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was drunk when I made my deal with the devil, and while that may get you out of a marriage, it doesn't apply in this situation.

"What's the point?" I ask. "What's the goddamned point? How do you benefit from me getting laid?"

Allgolagnus grinned, took a deep sip of coffee. "Jimmy, my boy. You don't get it. It's not about the screwing. It's not even about you. You're an agent of misery. You're helping to maximize the overall suffering in this godforsaken world."

"By getting laid?" I ask. "By screwing a different woman every night if I want?"

"You just see them as things that you fuck. You don't get it that they're people too, with their own lives and hopes and dreams. And relationships, don't forget that. Look sharp, here comes Meghan-with-an-H again."

We both sit up straight as Meghan lays out our breakfast in front of us, and refills my demonic handler's coffee mug. She gives me a little smile as she leaves us to our meal. Dammit.

Once she's out of earshot, Algolagnus continues. "Like that one that you nailed last night. What was that, your third time with her? She's married, don't you give a shit?"

"She's married to a total bastard. A lawyer. A shark. She's just a trophy wife to him. What, are you lecturing me on morality?"


He chuckles as he takes a forkful of pie. "So what? Just because she's a trophy, you think he doesn't care? Sure he does. He cared enough to have her followed. He'll be getting the report in a little bit. In an hour and twelve minutes he'll take a shotgun to that faithless whore's guts. She won't die, not right away. She'll suffer for a while. Long enough for him to regret what he did. Long enough for him to get caught - red-handed, as they say. Caught and arrested and put on trial. But don't worry, somehow your identity will remain a mystery. You'll get to go on with the next one, and the next one, and the next one."

I put down my fork. "Why?" I say. "Why her?"

He laughs again, a derisive, mocking laugh. "You dumb shit, you think this is about her? She's nothing. It's like I told you. Her husband may be a bastard, a shark, but he's involved in the community. He's behind a lot of charity work, social services, crap like that. When he takes that shotgun to his wife, he'll be blasting away all that stuff, too. The net misery in the world will increase by a whole lot as that network of charities falls apart. It's all already in motion. No way of stopping it. All thanks to you."

I sit and watch my bacon and eggs get cold.

"So what about this next one?" I ask. "I presume you're setting me up with the waitress next."


"Heh, that's up to you, boyo. I don't give a shit whose life you destroy next. But destroy you will. Meghan-with-an-H one has a kid, eighteen months old. She lives with her grandmother, an honest-to-god-for-reals grandmother. Maybe you'll give her the clap, like that high school chick a few months ago - wrecked her reputation, you know. Maybe you'll just knock her up. Maybe she'll decide she wants to go back to her party life, ditch the kid and her grandmother. Whatever. It won't end well."

He sits back and pulls out a pocket watch, just like the one my grandfather used to have. "Well, I'd love to stay and chat, but you aren't my only account. Better be moving on. Pay the pretty lady, will you? You'll find your wallet is fat again. Try not to spend it all in one place."

He stands up, pulls out a hat of a style that hadn't been worn since Kennedy's time. "Give sweet little Meghan-with-an-H my love. Repeatedly." He smiles at his little joke. "You'll be hearing from me in a week or two. Maybe we'll hit a club some Saturday night." He winks, turns, and walks out of the diner. I wonder how much longer he'll keep wearing my grandfather's body.

Meghan comes to check on us, sees that my "uncle" is gone, sees that I have barely touched my food. I ask her for the check, as coldly and impolitely as I could.

I wonder about Sara. How long does she have? Can I save her? Algolagnus said there's nothing I can do to stop her husband from shooting her. Did he lie? I know where she lives, know what her husband looks like. Is there time?

Meghan comes back with the check, and another slip of paper. Her number, maybe. I take the check, stuff the other paper into my pocket without looking at it.

Meghan is raising a kid on less than minimum wage supplemented with tips. Probably taking care of her grandmother, too. I pull out my wallet. It is stuffed with twenties, tens, and fives. Algolagnus makes sure I am well-funded.

I pull out a couple of twenties and tuck them under my plate. She can use the money.

No.

I take back the twenties and reach into another pocket for change. I find what I am looking for. Pennies. Two of them. An ancient insult. I put them prominently on the table, where anyone can see. Meghan will be crushed. She gave us good service. She deserves a tip. Needs a tip. She will hate me for this.

No again.

I scoop up the pennies, empty my wallet onto the table, take back enough to pay for the meal and cab fare to Sara's home. I discreetly hide the bills under a plate. I don't need the money, but Meghan does.

I pay the bill and head out the door without looking back for her reaction.


Maybe it really is too late to do anything about Sara's husband. Maybe her fate is sealed, and his as well. Maybe she will be killed regardless of what happens next. Maybe nothing I can do will change any of that.

But maybe I haven't screwed up Meghan's life yet. And maybe, if I can convince Sara's husband to shoot me, too, maybe I'll never get the chance.


Fun fact: Shortly after I presented this story for the first time, I saw a man in Sam's Club who looked exactly like my grandfather, and was even wearing a suit that would have been stylish in Kennedy's day. He was walking by as I was exiting the checkouts, and didn't look at me or acknowledge me in any way. So I guess it wasn't a supernatural entity sent to warn me off writing these stories. Maybe.

Oh, the devil in the story is named after the practice of algolagnia, a sexual paraphilia in which pleasure is derived from the application of painful stimulus to the erogenous zones. See, I saved you from having to look that up. You're welcome. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Wolf Moon setting over snow, January 25, 2016


When I was doing the Seven Days of Nature Photos challenge a few weeks ago, one thing became clear: I had really slacked off on my photo posting in recent years. I planned to remedy that, but realized I have't taken that many worthwhile photos recently. Still, I have a few, and I decided to start posting what I have.

This picture was taken the morning of Monday, January 25. The first major snowfall of the season had hit that weekend, and the snow still felt fresh. The Full Moon had been that weekend, also, and was the one known as the "Wolf Moon." (Every Full Moon has a special name attached to it!) When I stepped outside to get the morning paper I saw that the Full Moon was about to settle into a thick cloud bank and vanish from sight. I grabbed my camera and tripod and grabbed this shot, framing the Moon with a snow-covered Juniper bush and the branches of a Japanese Red Maple. The focus is on the Juniper, so the overexposed Moon and the Red Maple branches are slightly out of focus.

A minute or so after I took this, the Moon was gone, and it was time to get ready for work.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Writers' Showcase THIS SATURDAY!

The Winter edition of the Writers' Showcase is THIS SATURDAY, February 27, 2016 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM! It will take place at The Old Brick Theatre, 126 West Market Street in Scranton, Pennsylvania from 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM. Admission is $4.00. Readings will include poetry and prose.  The other featured readers will be David J. Bauman, Mason Crawford, Jason Allen, and Alicia Grega.

If you can't make it, fret not - I intend to post the pieces I will be reading here, as well as some bonus material. But I would absolutely love to see you there!


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Furnace issues, February 18, 2016

We have baseboard heat in this house, forced hot water circulation. Over the past few days the pipes have been making a banging sound as hot water is pumped into them. Last night I traced the banging to the circulator pump, which was last replaced ten or fifteen years ago. We talked about maybe calling in someone to take a look at it next week during my days off.

No such luck. The circulator pump quit working this afternoon. We have someone working on it now. Fortunately it is covered by a service plan.

There may be some maintenance that can be done to prolong the life of the pump. If there is, I'll include the instructions here so I can reference them in the future.


UPDATE: This new pump is a sealed pump. No maintenance required. But the guy did show me that one valve that was supposed to be open was shut. This caused the water level circulating through the system to gradually drop, resulting in gurgling and flowing water sounds.


Big doings in (and near) little Nanticoke

From 1992 through 2012, with an interruption in 2007 and another in 2010, I commuted some thirty-five miles to work from Nanticoke to Olyphant, PA via Interstate 81.  The commute took anywhere from forty minutes to infinity, depending on traffic, construction, and accidents. It is entirely possible that I am still stuck in one or more traffic jams on 81 right now, and my whole life since then has been nothing more than a dream fueled by exhaust fumes.

BE PREPARED TO STOP. Also, there's a tractor-trailer on fire up ahead. Have a nice day!
Since early 2012 my commute has been much shorter - five miles, requiring about ten minutes of travel time. Unlike my previous commute, this one has several alternate routes, all of varying distance but all essentially the same travel time. If there's an accident or construction or a random bike race or some other impediment on one of them, I can quickly and easily switch to an alternate route and still make it to work on time.

All that is about to end.

Times Leader: Work begins on long-awaited roundabouts in Nanticoke (January 31, 2016)

One of the most controversial recent road projects in northeastern Pennsylvania has been the revamping of the exit for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport (AVP, in travel professional lingo) to and from I-81. The exit was workable as it was, if a bit awkward; people trying to get to some locations off the exit would have to make a U-turn at or near the airport. Someone had the bright idea to install a roundabout, or traffic circle, at the exit, so people getting on and off of 81 could have smooth access to all of the places that you can get to from the exit, and could easily access 81 north and south from those places. Yeah. That didn't work out. Whether from disastrously poor planning that made the roundabout too tight and narrow to be useful to the tractor-trailers that sometimes need to take that exit, or from the general absence of signs letting drivers know which way to go to get where they want to go (instead, the signs seem to wordlessly indicate "cyclopses this way, aliens that way"), or perhaps the general lack of usefulness of a roundabout in this situation, the project has been a disaster from the moment it was opened to the public.

The new project is about to place six roundabouts between me and where I work.

Nanticoke (left) and Hanover Industrial Park (right). All maps from Google Maps.
Nanticoke is a small, densely-packed city bordered by fairly heavily forested lands that comprise various townships. The biggest and most relevant in this situation is Hanover Township, which covers most of the area to the south and east of Nanticoke up to Wilkes-Barre. Nanticoke is a "bedroom community": people live there and sleep there but generally do not work there, owing to the general lack of industry within the city limits. There used to be businesses, a cigar factory and a throwing mill and a few others, but most of them moved away in the 1950's. Now most residents have to commute to work, whether thirty-five miles or just five miles.

I live near the place marked "Greater Nanticoke High School" on the center left of the map above. I work in the industrial park on the center right of the image. There are several ways I can get to work. The orange line representing Route 29 looks like it would be the most convenient, but it isn't, due to relatively heavy traffic on it and a fairly complex off-ramp interface. My preferred route involves taking the road marked 2010 on the map, a lightly-traveled two-lane road that runs right into the industrial park. On the return commute I prefer to take Dundee Crossing Road, which is on the center of the map above and runs from South Main Street (Middle Road) to the Sans Souci Parkway. This isn't the shortest or most convenient road, but it is the prettiest, and one that has fond memories for me. The trees along that road form arches over it, creating a forested tunnel of sorts. Late afternoon sunlight in the Summer and Fall creates beautiful effects. The road passes under an old, disused bridge not far from Middle Road and through a tunnel near the Sans Souci Parkway. My grandfather used to take us for rides in his blue Dodge Dart along that road, and would always beep the horn as we passed through the tunnel - something I still do once in a while.

Nanticoke is fairly tightly-packed. Its boundaries enclose a lot of houses, some schools, Luzerne County Community College, a supermarket and some shops, some river flood plain, and a historical relic called Concrete City. It had an industrial park put in once upon a time, but no industry actually moved into it, and it now is simply a long access road that leads to some houses that are technically outside of the city limits. But the map above shows several spots just to the east of the city that have been stripped of trees. These look to be new industrial parks being planned in Hanover Township. But what sort of industry will they bring? More warehouse and call center jobs paying $10 - $12 an hour?

Map showing Nanticoke city boundaries and surrounding area
In any event these industrial parks and the jobs they bring will lie outside of Nanticoke's city limits, and therefore will provide no tax revenue to the city itself. Yet they will cause significant problems for the people of Nanticoke, at least over the next three years.

Three turning circles will be added at the intersections of Middle Road and Prospect, Espy, and Kosciuszko Streets
Three of the six turning circles coming to the area will be along the road in the lower left of this photo. The area enclosed in the square-ish region is Luzerne County Community College, bordered by Kosciuszko Street on the east, Prospect Street on the west, Middle Road on the south, and - well, on the north it's bordered by a gully, but for neatness' sake let's say Field Street on the north. Turning circles will be placed at the intersections of Middle Road with Prospect Street, Espy Street (at the middle bottom of the above image, heading south off the bottom of the picture), and Kosciuszko Street. In addition there will likely be an entrance to the new access road - essentially a bypass from Route 29 to Kosciuszko Street that will relieve traffic from the heavily-populated Middle Road - at the left of center of the image above. (A road has already been cleared there, and heads into some of the cleared areas on the upper right of the image.) Three turning circles in such a small area - there will barely be a quarter-mile between each one - seems excessive.

An additional three turning circles will be added, one near Dundee Crossing Road (right of center of map), another where Route 29 intersects Middle Road / South Main Street (Wilkes-Barre), and a third midway between (just to the left of the lime green square)
Three more turning circles will be added outside of the Nanticoke city limits. One will be near Dundee Crossing Road, right of center in the image above. Another will be near where Route 29 intersects Middle Road / South Main Street. A third will apparently service the as-yet-unconstructed industrial park, and will be somewhere to the left of the lime-green square on the center-right of the image above.

Now the bad news: the road closings.

• Dundee Road closed from May 2016 to May 2019
• Espy Street closed from April to August 2016
• Prospect Street closed from March to October 2017
• Middle Road west of Koscuizsko Street closed September 2017 to August 2019
• Koscuizsko Street closed from March to June 2019
• Middle Road at exit 2 over state Route 29, closed August to October 2019
I'm not sure how extensive these closing will be. I doubt "Kosciuszko Street closed September 2017 to August 2019" means that residents of Kosciuszko Street will have to park their cars blocks away and walk home. More likely it means "intersection of Kosciuszko Street and Middle Road, no traffic allowed past..." - well, where? There's a new housing development right near that intersection. Will the residents be able to get to their houses? Will there be access to LCCC from the Kosciuszko Street entrance? Will students at the high school and elementary schools on Kosciuszko Street still be able to get to school? Probably. But I don't want to presume too much about what this project might bring.

Dundee Crossing Road, closed May 2016 through May 2019

The biggest loss for me will be the closure of Dundee Crossing Road for three years, from May 2016 to May 2019. I will miss that road. I drove on it very little until I started at this job, and then took it initially for the sense of nostalgia. I have become fond of it, and enjoy the ride. I don't know what the next three years will bring, and I don't know if I'll have any need of this particular road when it re-opens in May 2019.

All this is just at the initial stages. Some construction has taken place already, taking advantage of the unusually warm Winter we've enjoyed until recently. But projects like this can easily take much longer than the original timeline indicates. As with many things, we'll have to wait and see how things work out.

UPDATE, February 26, 2016: Dundee Road is now closed. More than two months ahead of schedule.

UPDATE, March 9, 2016: The Larmel Inn at the corner of Espy Street and Middle Road has been torn down.

UPDATE, March 29, 2016: There is a detour in place for Espy Street, which is now closed to through traffic.

UPDATE, April 1, 2016: Middle Road will be closed at Espy Street starting April 4. This closure is scheduled to last through September.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Narcissist

If you've ever dealt with a Narcissist, you probably know that they are obnoxious, charismatic, overbearing, and fun. They are the life of the party and can easily command a room, though half the time it seems that people watch them with the same sort of fascination with which they rubberneck at the aftermath of a car crash or at the site of an active structure fire.

If you've dealt with a Narcissist long enough, you've probably come to realize that their goals are not necessarily aligned with the goals of whatever group they might be involved with. Their own goals take priority over everyone and everything else. And, in the end, the successful achievement of their goals may be detrimental to the group as a whole.

And if you've ever found yourself opposing a Narcissist, you've probably learned that the only thing worse than what happens when a Narcissist gets his way is what happens when a Narcissist fails to get his way.

Narcissists are petty, mean, vindictive, nasty creatures. They demand to be made the center of attention at all times, simultaneously playing the roles of the class clown and the elder statesman. If they are ever thwarted, called out for what they are, and removed from the spotlight, they will turn their energies to destroying the people they see as responsible for their downfall. And they don't stop there: they will then do their best to make anyone who agreed with the decision to remove them from their privileged position, whether through active cooperation or passive assent, regret that decision forever. They will try to destroy their enemies publicly and privately, personally and professionally. In a conflict with a Narcissist, everybody loses, one way or another.

In the 2016 Presidential Election the Republicans have found themselves with a Narcissist for a leading candidate. Either he will win the Republican  nomination, or he will not. And if he becomes the Republican nominee, either he will become President, or not.

It's chilling to think about what Donald Trump might do if he becomes President. But it's just as chilling to think about petty, mean, vindictive, and nasty things Donald Trump might do if he fails to become President.



Reference:
Mayo Clinic: Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fimbulvinter, and the Time of No Birds

Salem, Massachusetts is a place of great significance in my life. I've been there twice, both times with people who meant very nuch to me. Both times we stayed at the Hawthorne, a beautiful old hotel situated right in the heart of town, within walking distance of all the interesting spots. My second and so far last visit there was in early 2002. (This was before Salem became a major tourist destination, where reservations for October need to be booked weeks or months in advance, and tourist traffic blocks access to the city for hours at a time.)

I planned a third visit in January 2014, with another friend who meant (and still means) a great deal to me. This would be a birthday present to myself, and a present to her to celebrate some significant changes in her life. She was at an inflection point in life - in more ways than we fully realized at the time - and this would likely be the last time she would have the ability to just run off and do something for a few days. We would stay at the Hawthorne, visit all the touristy stuff, and wander around in the guise of two writers with a vague interest in the occult, immersing ourselves in the historical and spiritual richness of Salem. 

Still, something felt wrong in the days leading up to our planned departure.The weather forecasts were ominous. Record cold was predicted for the northeast, particularly for New England. Some strange weather pattern called a "polar vortex" was about to bring a persistent pattern of arctic cold to the area. By this time I had been working in the travel industry for over a year, and knew enough to scrutinize the cancellation policies for the Hawthorne before I committed to a reservation. As is typical, the policies did not allow cancellations on the day of check-in, nor for a period of time before that. If I booked a room and had to cancel due to weather, I would probably be out rather a lot of money.

I decided to take a chance. We would make the four hour drive to Salem without reservations. We would book a room upon arrival there, maybe even see if we could get a last-minute deal on an unoccupied extra-spacious upper-floor room with a view of Salem Common and a history of spectral manifestations. I called the day before our planned departure and confirmed that they had plenty of availability.

Then all hell broke loose. Or, more accurately, froze over.

The polar vortex slipped into position, sliding down from Canada. It took up residence over Boston Harbor. Temperatures dropped to record lows. Salem was on the edge of the coldest region in the country. Snow was falling, cars were freezing up, the state of Massachusetts was issuing dire warnings about health and safety.

We canceled our trip.

It was just as well, I suppose. The Hawthorne became an emergency shelter of sorts. All that availability probably vanished as the place filled with people needing rescue from the cold. Walking around Salem was suddenly out of the question. At best we would be trying to huddle around the fireplace in the Hawthorne's spacious lobby, along with several hundred other people.

(It turned out to be for the best, anyway. The inflection point in my friend's life proved to be far sharper than we realized.But I was right in thinking this would have been our last chance to do this sort of thing together.) 

The Polar Vortex of 2014 was brutal. Temperatures in Northeastern Pennsylvania plummeted sharply, and stayed there. The deep freeze would have effects that lasted well beyond the end of Winter. Pipes froze. Roads shattered as years of built-up water that had seeped into cracks and had never frozen suddenly froze and expanded, creating about four years of potholes in a week. Some hardy perennials, like my butterfly bushes, froze and died.

Some wags stated that Ragnarok, the great apocalyptic war of Norse Mythology, was upon us. It seemed fitting: after all, Ragnarok is to be preceded by Fimbulvinter, the great and terrible Winter. And it sure as heck felt like Fimbulvinter was upon us, or at least the fraction of us who lived in the Northeast. (Most of the rest of the U.S., and most of the rest of the world, was experiencing one of the warmest Winters on record. But it was cold in New York, and in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and that was enough for political decision makers and media types stationed in the Northeast to declare that it was ridiculously cold for everyone.

The Winter of 2014-2015 saw a repeat of the pattern, but this time with more snow. Snow fell throughout the season but never melted. Each new snowfall would sit atop the frozen relic of the previous snowfall, building up higher and higher. Then the deep freeze came again, dropping temperatures even lower than the previous year. More potholes, more frozen pipes, more lasting damage. Boston would build a pile of relocated snow that would not fully melt until July. Senator James Inhofe, R-OK, Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and longtime climate change denier, brought a snowball into the Senate chambers and declared climate change a hoax.

The deep freeze that year did more than just kill a few plants. Something seemed fundamentally different in the Spring. Something felt...eerie, post-apocalyptic. Something was missing. Something I couldn't put my finger on, even as I wandered around and took pictures of buds and blossoms. I strained to figure out what it was. After I while it hit me.

Silence.

Rachel Carson, decades before, had warned of a "Silent Spring." Her warning regarded environmental buildup of pesticides. As pesticides like DDT were used more and more extensively, they would accumulate in the bodies of animals of all sorts and become more concentrated the higher you moved up the food chain. Birds were especially susceptible. Pesticide use would affect not just the birds but their eggshells, resulting in loss of clutch after clutch of eggs. Over time, extensive use of pesticides like DDT would wipe out bird populations. The songs of birds would be silenced. Spring would be without birdsong.   

The Spring of 2015 was silent in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Not because of pesticides, I believe, but because of the severity of the Winter that had preceded it.

I began taking note of the absence of birds. No great flocks making daily flights to feeding grounds. No masses of birds congregating on wires or in trees. No sequences of Red-Winged Blackbirds, House Finches, Purple Finches, and Goldfinches at my feeders. No screaming flocks of birds demanding their morning treat of stale bread.

This happened:


These are cherry blossoms, photographed on April 29, 2015. I planted this tree in 2002. It follows a pattern every year: it puts out some blossoms in the Spring - not many, sometimes just on a few branches. Those blossoms get pollinated and begin to swell into little green proto-cherries. By Mother's Day in mid-May, birds have stripped off most of the developing cherries, leaving only a handful to fully ripen - which they promptly eat. In the first twelve years of this tree's residence in my yard, I had eaten perhaps a dozen cherries from it.

This was the cherry tree on June 9, 2015:



This was not normal. May had come and gone, June was upon us, and now I was faced with hundreds, maybe thousands of ripening cherries on a tree that would normally be stripped bare. In the weeks that followed I ate many cherries from my tree. I also learned that cherries have a very short season for picking - they went from not-quite-ripe to withering on the tree in less than two weeks. The cherries that filled the upper reaches were even worse. I couldn't reach them, and there were no birds to eat them, so they just withered and rotted.

Birds returned, eventually. Not all of the species I'm used to seeing. Not in the numbers I'm used to. But by the end of the Summer the air was again full of the sounds of birds.

The Winter of 2015-2016 was, up until the end of 2015, one of the warmest in memory. January of 2016 saw some seasonably cold temperatures, nothing too brutal. In late January there was a highly stratified snowfall, an inch or so in Scranton, four to six inches in Nanticoke, a foot in Hazleton, much more in Philadelphia and New York and Washington, D.C. But in Williamsport, in Boston - nothing. No snowfall.

And now, in the second weekend of February, we are looking at another Polar Vortex.  No massive snowfall like the Valentine's Day storm of 2007 is expected, but temperatures are expected to plunge to painful lows again. Will this be another persistent cold snap, creating damage that will last beyond the Winter? Or will it be short-lived flirtation, with the warm temperatures of the December 2015 returning? We'll have to wait and see.

Fimbulvinter probably isn't upon us. But will we hear birdsong in the Spring?