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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 (reopened December 2, 2016)

SEE MARCH 30, 2017 UPDATE FOR REVISIONS
UPDATE, March 30, 2017: 
• Middle Road, from Kosciuszko Street to Dundee Road will be closed to all traffic, beginning on Monday, April 3rd. This closure and related detours will be in place until November 2017
• Kosciuszko Street will be closed July 6, 2017 and be reopened in November 2017.
• Prospect Street will be closed in the summer of 2018 and reopen in November 2018.

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.

UPDATE, December 8, 2016: The roundabout on Middle Road and Espy Street opened on December 2, 2016. (The original schedule stated it would be closed through August 2016. A later schedule put it at October 2016.) Next phase of construction on Middle Road should begin in March 2017 when the Prospect Street project begins.

UPDATE, March 30, 2017: Kosciuszko Street detour is in place. Revised schedule per this article:

• Middle Road will be closed and a detour will be in place beginning April 3. The road will reopen in November.
• Kosciuszko Street will be closed July 6 and be reopened in November.
• Prospect Street will be closed in the summer of 2018 and reopen in November 2018.

From the article:
Utility work on Kosciuszko Street will slow traffic this week, and Luzerne County Community College posted on Facebook that Middle Road will be closed to traffic due to construction of a roundabout. 
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation notified the college that Middle Road will be closed from Kosciuszko Street to the Lower Askam section of Hanover Township as early as April 3, according to the post.
From LCCC's Facebook page:
IMPORTANT ADVISORY: MIDDLE ROAD CLOSING THIS MONDAY
Please be advised that Middle Road, from Kosciuszko Street to Dundee Road will be closed to all traffic, beginning on Monday, April 3rd. This closure and related detours will be in place until November of 2017 as part of the construction of the new South Valley Parkway.
UPDATE, July 11, 2017:  Kosciuszko Street is now closed at Middle Road. It is open to the Grateful Roast coffee shop, but there is no access to Birchwood from Kosciuszko Street. Birchwood can be accessed via Middle Road through Prospect Street, though the main entrance to the parking lot is closed and access is now through a temporary paved entrance. Closure is scheduled through November 2017, when the new roundabout (the second of five - or is it six?) will be opened. LCCC has signs at both the Kosciuszko Street and Prospect Street entrances advising that there is NO THRU TRAFFIC through their parking lot.




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?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gravitational waves and polar cold

Today, a team of scientists announced the first detection of gravitational waves. It's kind of a big deal. Actually, it's a huge deal, an incredible scientific achievement, the result of decades of effort. It proves the existence of something Albert Einstein predicted and then dismissed a century ago. Will this detection be repeated in the future? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, for the third year in a row, a "polar vortex" is taking up residence over the northeastern United States. This resulted in brutal and persistent cold during the previous event. The Winter of 2015-2016 has been unusually warm in the northeast, and this period of intense cold may be shorter in duration than the previous two. Its timing may be just right to interfere with my plans to go to one last poetry reading at the Old School House in Springville this Saturday, before I no longer have weekends off after my schedule changes next week. (I had to schedule vacation time to be sure I can make it to my own poetry reading on February 27.)

The Winter of 2013-2014 was so cold that it killed many hardy perennials in my yard. The Winter of 2014-2015 was even colder, and resulted in a "Silent Spring": bird populations did not return until much later in Spring than usual, with a very different species distribution than in the past. (Spiders also showed up much later in the year, though many people probably did not have a problem with this.) As a result of the missing birds, I had a bumper crop of cherries for the first time since I planted the trees in 2002. But that is a story for another post.

Dirt

Today is Ash Wednesday. For Christians - some Christians, anyway, and specifically I'm thinking of Roman Catholics* - this is a day of somber reflection: it marks the beginning of Lent, a forty day period of self-denial (six days each week, not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter.

Ash Wednesday was a big deal back when I was in Catholic School from kindergarten through eighth grade. Our Ash Wednesday services would take place during the school day. We would march from the school to the church sometime in the mid-morning, sit through Mass, and then line up and get a smudge of ashes - burned palms from the previous year - on our foreheads as the priest grumbled "Remember man, dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return." After we headed back to school we would all laugh at each other's "dirt" for the rest of the day. We weren't supposed to wipe the ash off, or even wash it off before bed. Most of us would come to school the next day with clean foreheads, Usually.

I was in Florida for a Space Shuttle lunch near Ash Wednesday back in the late 1990's. My mom and I found a Catholic Church near Cocoa Beach and went to the Ash Wednesday service there. Later that day we went to a restaurant for lunch. The waitresses kept looking at us strangely, and eventually one of them asked us why we had dirt on out foreheads. We told them, but I think they were still baffled. Throughout the rest of the day, we realized we weren't seeing many people with ashes on their foreheads. I suppose in that part of Florida, Catholics - or maybe Christians in general - are a rare breed.

I went for ashes today after work. The service was packed. The parking lot was filled beyond capacity, to the point that we had to wait for all the cars filling the lanes to pull out before those of us parked in spaces could leave. It was the third of three services today, and the priest pointed out that all of them were well-attended.

Is there a meaning in this beyond tradition, a ritual connecting me to to my own past and to the lives of my parents and grandparents? Is it a time to muse on mortality, to experience a season of self-denial, or to ritually cleanse one's self in preparation for the celebration of Easter?

I don't know. But one thing I can say for sure: Today, I got my "dirt."



*Many Protestant Christians, or "hellbound apostates", don't consider Catholics to be Christians at all. Donald Trump tried to insinuate that Ted Cruz isn't a "real" Christian because his Cuban roots make it more likely he's a Catholic. Go figure.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Bernie vs. Hillary, Clinton vs. Sanders: Fight With Clubs, Round 2

Francisco de Goya, Fight With Clubs. Same mire, different decade.

We're still a while away from the Pennsylvania primary, but who would have thought I could pretty much be recycling a post from 2008?

A few months ago, nobody thought the Democratic Primary process would go on long enough to reach Pennsylvania with more than one viable candidate. Hillary Clinton, the anointed candidate of the party bosses, would certainly by now have ground all of her opponents under foot with the aid of the full strength of the Party machine behind her.

Or: Barack Obama Bernie Sanders, the popular and charismatic upstart from Illinois Vermont, would have ridden a swelling wave of popular support that would have led all of his Democratic rivals to throw in the towel and jump on the bandwagon.

Or: Hillary Clinton, the one candidate certain to energize the Clinton-haters of the far Right, would have been advised by Party leaders to withdraw from the campaign, lest she create a backlash that results in a greater Republican turnout that there would be without her.

Or: ...well, you get the point.
For the record: I will support either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. I will do this without reservation. I will not "hold my nose and pull the lever." I believe either of them is a superior candidate to anyone on the Republican roster, and their values align far more closely to mine than any of the Republicans.

I got to see Hillary Clinton up close during the 2008 Primary race. She came to Scranton and spoke to a cheering crowd of thousands who packed a high school gym. And after she spoke there, she came into the auditorium where the overflow crowd - the hundred or so people who couldn't get in to see her but decided to stick around - had been listening to her speech over a PA. When she was done with the huge crowd, she came into the auditorium and spoke to us, just us, for more than a few minutes. It was pretty amazing.

Before I saw her there, I would have said - did say, many times - that Hillary Clinton had the charisma of a jar of pickles. After that experience, though, I was pretty impressed. She didn't have to do what she did. After speaking to a huge crowd, what did our little group matter? But she did speak to us, regardless. It was really something.

There has been an industry of "Hillary Hate" since before her husband became President. You could fill a few shelves just with the books published to attack and smear her. Republicans have been as relentless in trying to destroy her and undermine her credibility as they were, and continue to be, with Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Jimmy Carter.

But some of the very same attacks on Hillary Clinton used by Republicans - including the most specious ones - are now being picked up by Bernie Sanders supporters. Just like in 2008.

And I think it's shaken Hillary. She and some of her big-name supporters have made some serious missteps and have said some seriously unhelpful things, things that have served to alienate Sanders supporters.

If Sanders wins the nomination, I don't know of any Clinton supporters who are planning to sit out the election - or, worse, cast their votes for the Republican candidate. But I do know of Sanders supporters who plan to do these things. If Clinton does get the Democratic nomination, the only way she will win is with the support of the people who are supporting Sanders now. The same is true for Sanders: he cannot win without the support of the people who are currently supporting Clinton.

If the candidates and their respective camps continue to slug away at each other as they have been doing, the inevitable outcome will be a Republican in the White House for another four to eight years. Remember what happened to this country the last time that happened? Does anyone want to see a repeat of the George W. Bush years?



Monday, February 08, 2016

Back to work

...sort of. I've been having a break from eleven hour workdays, but now limited overtime is available again. Worked until 8:34 tonight - it was supposed to be 8:00, but I got stuck on a call. Tomorrow I'm going in for 8:00 AM.

I could have worked from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM yesterday, but I realized I wanted to watch the Super Bowl. Well, the commercials. And the halftime show. And the Kitten Bowl.

For the record, puppymonkeybaby was very disturbing. ATTENTION FUTURE PEOPLE: Brace yourselves before you look that up.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Solar halo, January 30, 2016

While I was waiting for my friend to pick me up for our trip to Bloomsburg to see Romeo and Juliet, I happened to look up and see...this.


Halos around the Sun aren't that uncommon. They just need the right type of clouds containing the right type of ice crystals to create the effect. Like so many amazing things, we miss them because we don't happen to look in the right place at the right moment.


I moved across the street into the shadow of a utility pole to try to get a better view of the halo. It turns out my phone camera image isn't wide enough to capture the whole thing, at least in portrait mode. And the lower portion of the halo was either unformed or too low to be seen. I have seen fully circular halos in the past, but those have been in late Spring, with the Sun placed much higher in the sky.

Goes to show, you never know what you might see if you just look!

Shakespearean January

A friend and I have been to numerous plays and other events together over the last - geez - ten years. (Well, nine years and five months, but still, that can't be right, can it?) The last thing we went to together was A Midsummer Night's Dream at King's College in Wilkes-Barre in April 2014. In January of this year we made up for that by going to two plays by Shakespeare.

Image from The New Vintage Ensemble Facebook page.

The first was Hamlet, presented by The New Vintage Ensemble at the Scranton Cultural Center. We saw the final performance of the run on the evening of January 16. It was an unusual experience for me, since I knew several of the actors personally; in a way it reminded me of watching my friends appear in plays in college. Conor O'Brien, former proprietor of The Vintage Theater, played the title role, while blogger and NEPA BlogCon co-organizer Mandy Boyle Pennington (who I first met at an event at The Vintage Theater) portrayed the First Player, Osric, and Francisco (the first character to appear in the play). Simone Daniel, who I met several times at The Vintage, took on the role of Horatio, Hamlet's best friend and confidante.

This was the first outing for The New Vintage Ensemble. The story unfolded on a spare stage; costumes ranged from simple to surrealistic. Hamlet runs over four hours when presented in full, but even this somewhat abbreviated version ran close to three. While the performance started off slowly, the action of the story quickly took hold and carried the characters off to their sundry dismal fates. Conor O'Brien made a fine Hamlet, more cunning and clever than the indecisive semi-madman he is usually portrayed. Hamlet was given the line regarding the fates of his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a statement usually delivered by the late-arriving Ambassador from England, whose role - like that of Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who claims the Danish crown for himself (since no one else is using it) at the end of the play - was eliminated.

On January 30 we went to see the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble's presentation of Romeo and Juliet. We have actually seen a production of Romeo and Juliet previously, in February 2011 at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts at Bucknell University. In that earlier production the action was translated into a conflict between competing early 20th-century organized crime families. This production also brought the action into a more modern setting, one that is recent history now, but was actually an event whose beginning was still seven months in the future when we saw the Bucknell version: the "Occupy" movement of late 2011.

We have seen several performances by the BTE together over the years, including Macbeth (2011), Flood Stories Too (2013), As You Like It (2013), and The Merchant of Venice (2013.) While neither of us know any of the performers personally, we feel like we know the ensemble members from seeing them play different roles in different plays.

Even the theater itself was a character in this production: Upon arriving at the doors you immediately saw notices from the management advising that the pitching of tents, setting up campsites, or any similar activity was strictly prohibited. Going through the doors you entered into a lobby under occupation, with hand-lettered cardboard signs dotted around the tents that filled much of the space. The performance space was immersive, with sets spilling off the stage, the walls covered with more protest signs (incongruously including the hand-drawn logos of the play's corporate sponsors), spectators seated on the stage with the actors, and actors performing throughout the audience, on ladders, and on the catwalk over the stage. Characters wore the garish fashions of four and a half years ago - the Montagues now being protesters in the Occupy movement, and the Capulets representing the Establishment (embodied primarily by ambitious political candidate Lady Capulet.) The Prince, who is fed up with the violence between the two factions, has been distributed over several masked police officers in riot gear, his proclamations announced through a bullhorn. Invitations are written on iPads, messages are sent by text, and Romeo's misplaced cell phone spells disaster

This was a very engaging and energetic production, bringing new life to a play that for many has been done to death from high school on. Strangely enough, while the "Occupy" theme of the play seemed remote, almost more like something from the early 1970's than the early 2010's, the positioning of Lady Capulet as an ambitious politician, particularly one in conflict with a movement composed of idealistic youths, opened the possibility of another interpretation. The story was basically one step away from being in the here and now, portraying a conflict between the "establishment" supporters of Hillary Clinton and the "progressive" supporters of Bernie Sanders.

One missed opportunity was the complexity of the character of Mercutio. Mercutio was, as usual, portrayed as the closest friend of Romeo. Yet Mercutio is neither Montague nor Capulet; he is instead a relative of the Prince, and as such can move relatively freely among both sides of the conflict. He can also defy the Prince's orders with some degree of impunity. In the context of this production, Mercutio, excellently and playfully played here, is solidly with the protesters. But his (in this case, her) connection to the Prince in the original would translate into a connection to the riot-geared police in this version - an interesting complication that was not touched upon.

Perhaps the "Occupy" theme was carried a bit too far. There were no programs or playbills provided with cast lists or production notes - nor, as far as I can tell, is this information available at any official site. Instead, audience members were provided with double-sided hand-drawn photocopied sheets, with instructions given by a member of the cast on how to fold them into a matchbook-sized booklet. Unfortunately, this booklet contains very little useful information, and is pretty much just a souvenir of the play. (I was able to glean a partial cast list from several newspaper reviews published online.)

As the actors mingled with the audience before the play I noticed one young lady in a long green dress, and wondered what role she would perform. When the play began she took her place on a riser above the main stage. While she did speak some lines at the beginning of the play - chiding the minions of the Montagues and Capulets squabbling in the street, just before the forces of the Prince show up - it turned out that her role was to provide the music for the play, singing, playing guitar and keyboard, as well as both body and cardboard box percussion. Her voice had a lush, rich, haunting quality to it that reminded me most of Colbie Caillat. (Others have compared her to Norah Jones.) Later in the play the actors who had portrayed the by-then-deceased Mercutio, Tybalt, and a few others joined their voices to hers on her song "Man in Black" as the story spiraled to a tragic conclusion. Her musicianship was remarkable almost to the point of being distracting: I realized I was paying more attention to her singing than I was to the action of the play.

Image from CDBaby.com

Her name, I learned after the show, is Sydney Panikkar, and she is just fifteen years old - remarkably young, it seemed to me, to be so deeply involved in this production, though I realized later how ironic this is, since the titular characters of the story are only thirteen or fourteen years old. She does not have a website for her music yet, though she does have an online presence through Twitter and Instagram, as well as a YouTube page. She also has her music available for sale at the CDBaby.com website, where you can download one song at a time or her entire album, "The Perfection in Imperfection."  (Per the site it is available as a download only, but her representatives had physical copies for sale after the play.) She is a talented and promising young musician, and I hope we will be hearing more from her in the future.