Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Two more dreams: The Presentation and The Prison

I had a strangely detailed dream Tuesday morning. I had another Wednesday morning. I want to preserve them.

In Tuesday's dream, I had been asked by a friend to give a brief and humorous presentation on the topic of...masturbation. It would be done as a slide show, and was to last about ten minutes. I decided my presentation would cover a broad history of the topic, mentioning The Sin of Onan (who "spilled his seed on the ground" rather than have intercourse with his own daughters, as God had commanded), masturbation celebrated in music ("She Bop" by Cyndi Lauper, "I Touch Myself" by the DiVinyls), and famous masturbators who had gotten caught in the act (Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens, who was arrested in 1991 for masturbating in a porn movie theater, and, in a nod to current events, political commentator Jeffrey Toobin, who had been caught earlier that day masturbating on a Zoom call during a simulation of the upcoming Presidential election.)

That was the plan, anyway. In practice I never got around to preparing any of this, and now it was the day of the presentation.

The presentation would be in the second floor of The Gallery, a building that no longer exists on the campus of the University of Scranton. In the mid-to-late 80s, The Gallery was an old Chemistry building repurposed as offices, some classroom space, and a large study lounge that occupied the second floor of the building. The lounge was also the site of the art gallery that gave the building its name. I was there only a few times. I remember the large windows that were treated with an energy-saving film that reflected sunlight during the day, but reflected internal light at night. In the dream I needed to have some of these windows removed. I brought in a crew and a crane and we carefully chiseled out a bank of windows and removed them, only to discover that we had accidentally removed a built-in large screen TV that I planed to use for my presentation. We decided to clean the TV - it hadn't been cleaned in over a decade - and reinstall it.

I awoke realizing that the amount of mental work I had done in the dream would have allowed me to actually create this presentation with just a little more effort.

This morning's dream was a lot more serious. I had been arrested as a political dissident in a society slightly more authoritarian than our own. I was imprisoned in a large, labyrinthine prison in the wilderness outside of town. I was not yet being subject to punishment or re-education, and may have been awaiting trial.I managed to slip out of my cell and, with the aid of others, was able to find a way out, a sort of broad water outlet like the overflow of an infinity pool, that formed a small waterfall down the side of the building and outside. As is often the case in my dreams, it was a very tight fit. We had to remove our bulky jackets to get out. (Otherwise our prison garb was all-gray, much like the stuff worn by Kirk and Spock when they were prisoners on the Roman planet in Star Trek.)

I was quickly recaptured and put back in prison with no known consequences. I immediately set out to escape again. This time I was accompanied by Lo, who I had known in real life several years ago. When we got to the escape point I decided I would not try to squeeze through the tight opening again, and decided instead to walk through the lobby and out the front door, after announcing my intentions to the desk guard. I was seized and once again recaptured.

This time I was to be taken for what I assumed would be psychological torture. Among the people assigned to me was a young, evil, clean-cut, 1960's version of Chaz, the now-deceased leader of the writing group Lo and I had belonged to. He was stern but friendly to me in the manner of O'Brien in 1984. He told me about writing he had done that I had never known about, including some writing for science-fiction comic books in the 1960's. He opened a locker and let me see a few. He told me that, when all this was over he wanted me to organize and curate all of his writings for eventual publication. I was flattered by this offer, and some of the other prison officials expressed jealousy.

Lo's mother was summoned, apparently played by Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, but with long, curly, unkempt, black-and-gray hair, looking much like Bellatrix Lestrange from the Harry Potter movies. She was there to be interrogated and, apparently, punished in her daughter's place.

I don't remember much other than that. Just a feeling of everlasting hopelessness, a feeling that others would suffer punishments, sometimes for things I had done, but I would be OK as long as I played along. Overall, a very bleak and disturbing dream.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Dream: Back to Work

Someone posted a question on Twitter the other day: Has anyone been having especially weird dreams lately?

It's a weird time in America. Deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise. Donald Trump, who somehow won the electoral college in 2016 and was installed as president, has managed, after considerable effort, to contract the virus, and while he received levels of treatment unavailable to us peasants, it is likely he is still infected - and he insists on having in-person campaign events, including one yesterday at the White House. (2000 were invited. About 400 showed up. Word is many of those who showed up were paid to do so.) Trump is trying to push through hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, the ultra-conservative activist judge (with three years experience on the bench) he nominated to fill the Supreme Court seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just days after Ginsburg's death and less than two months before the election. Right-wing terrorists in Michigan have been arrested for plotting to abduct Governor Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government through armed violent insurrection. Huge swaths of the west coast are still on fire. We've run out of letters in the alphabet for hurricanes in the Atlantic, and Louisiana is currently dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Delta. Less than four weeks to the election, Luzerne County's mail-in ballots were (allegedly) just sent out on Friday from a facility in Akron, Ohio.

I'm still working from home, as I have been since March. My organization is taking this disease seriously, but there are concerns that the top management of our parent company may issue a business-as-usual order and call us back to the building at any time. And that's what my dream was about.

It didn't start off like that. Or maybe it did. It started off with me going to visit my cousin a block away, something I haven't done since the disease took hold in this area. While in real life she is holding a book for me that she acquired from the books-for-sale shelves at the library where she works, in the dream I think I was going up to pick up some plants. I got them from her father, who has been dead for fifteen years, and we spoke briefly, possibly about me going back to work.

Next thing I knew I was there, standing in line waiting to go back into the building for the first time in ages. (In reality I've been there two or three times since we bugged out.) I don't remember the process of getting inside, but I do recall that once inside I realized I wasn't wearing my ID - it was in my pocket. The building I went into wasn't the Kafkaesque office building that I actually work in, but seemed to be the nightmarishly complex factory building I last worked at in 2012 - and which was demolished earlier this year. I took a wrong turn almost immediately and realized I was lost. Looking down, I also realized I was barefoot, a startling and very odd detail.

I wandered the building for a very long time, well past my starting time, past areas where things that I couldn't comprehend were going on. (I am suddenly remembering that I have had several other dreams in a similar factory setting.) I finally found some people I could talk to and asked about directions to my work area. They tried to help me, but I wound up getting lost again, and at one point I stopped to scratch the belly of a large white wolf-dog that was casually stretched against a wall. Eventually I found my way to a security desk, and they had a helpful YOU ARE HERE map posted above their desk. I worked out that I was on the opposite end of the building from the area where I was supposed to be, an area marked SUTTON COMPLEX. I woke up wanting to look up where that name might have come from. 

Not pictured: The map from my dream

The facility in Olyphant, PA known as Specialty Records, WEA Manufacturing, CINRAM, and finally Technicolor. I worked here from 1992 - 2007 and again from 2007 - 2012. Technicolor closed down in 2018, and the place was finally demolished in June 2020. Fun fact: for much of the time I was there, my emergency evacuation spot was "the big oil tank in back," top center in picture - one of many places I would not want to be in the event of an emergency.
As far as dreams go, this isn't even in the top ten for weirdness. It seems like a variation of the standard "can't find my class" / "can't find the room for the final for the class I forgot to go to all semester" dream. The "barefoot" detail was something I've never had before.

(...I just remembered I had another dream a while ago, about being summoned back to Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences as an adult. While I had a hard time finding the classroom and got there late, I wasn't the last one to show up, and I quickly relaxed when I realized that this was a program solely focused on learning about cutting-edge science, in a non-competitive, ungraded environment. I meant to write about that, but never did.)

Note 1: Getting lost in the bowels of a building is something I'm familiar with in real life.

Note 2: There was apparently a sequence in this dream where I attempted to make eggs for breakfast and discovered all of our eggs were broken. Some had fractured shells, others were completely shattered, bits of shell floating in raw eggs in the egg keeper. I was pretty upset about this, and was relieved to see that in reality our egg supply is intact.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Mars and the Moon, September 6, 2020

On the night of September 5/morning of September 6, 2020, the Moon passed relatively close to Mars in the sky, and even occulted Mars entirely for some observers.

For Moon watchers, this is kind of a big deal. There are a lot of stars in the sky, and the Moon moves on more or less the same track as the planets, so it seems like it should happen more often that the Moon can be observed passing in front of a star or planet. But in reality, space is big. Bright stars are fairly spread out. Dim stars can be washed out by the light of the moon, even in its partial phases. And we only get to observe the Moon part of the night most nights - from not at all at New Moon and the days before and after, when the Moon is too close to the Sun to be observed and there are no objects bright enough to be seen in the glare of the Sun (with the exception of the Sun itself when the Moon passes in front of it in an eclipse), to all night long in the case of a blindingly bright Full Moon (although some excellent observations of the Full Moon against background stars can be made during a lunar eclipse.)

In addition, the Moon is relatively close to us, as opposed to the stars and even the planets which, to a good first approximation, are infinitely far from us.  (They are not, of course.) So not every observer on Earth is seeing the Moon against the same background. For observers in northern Africa, northern South America, and a swath of the Atlantic between the two, the Moon passed directly in front of Mars. From my observing point, it was a good distance below.

Even the time of the event is variable based on location. This is due again to the relative nearness of the Moon and the effect of observing from various points on Earth. published a table of "appulse" times, the time when the Moon and Mars were closest together in the sky

I used a somewhat unscientific method to determine closest approach. I zoomed in at maximum, enough for the Full Moon to fill most of the vertical space on my viewsceen in landscape mode. But this Moon was barely three-quarters full, so I realized it would fit comfortably if I flipped the camera ninety degrees to portrait mode. When I did this just before midnight, I could just barely squeeze Mars and the Moon into the same frame. As the night wore on, this became easier to do. (I had to keep adjusting my frame because of the motion of the Earth, which makes it seem that objects in the sky are moving from East to West, and also because my tripod is not exactly rock solid - the weight of the camera tends to make the tripod settings slip.)

I took numerous photos that night, and chose some of the better ones from the beginning (12:11 AM), middle (12:17 AM), and end (12:20 AM) of the viewing session. (While I could have stayed out longer, heavy clouds started to appear, and it seemed that the Moon an Mars were past their closest approach, based on increasing difficulty re-framing them.) I have cropped these photos to include only Mars and the Moon. While it appears that Mars is moving past the Moon, most of the motion is due to the movement of the Moon in its orbit around the Earth, the movement of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, and the rotation of the Earth.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Home Front by Brian Stableford

When the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded around us and a series of ad hoc responses began to fall into place (rather than the activation of the pandemic response plan developed by the two previous administrations, which had long ago been dismantled and discarded by the Trump administration), I realized that something felt familiar. Like I had read all of this in a story somewhere.

Turns out I had.

I'm not sure when Brian Stableford wrote "The Home Front." It was first published in 2002 in an anthology of new works celebrating the 30th anniversary of DAW Books.  I purchased it in the bargain section of Barnes & Noble. 

It is a story set during the First Plague War some time in the future. (I believe the approximate date of the action is 2130.) I have always found the short story unpleasant in tone, and perhaps this is intentional. The narrator is callous and selfish, the father to a family of four. He works from home, thanks to injuries suffered in a terrorist bombing some years before, as a trader specializing in biotech stocks - the annoyingly named "plantigens" and "plantibiotics", genetically modified plants that produce resistance factors to the latest manufactured plagues being used in a terror war. He lives with his wife and two daughters, the younger of whom is immunocompromised and subject to a variety of health concerns, while the older is a teenager rebelling against her family's confinement.  Both the father's ability to work from home and the younger daughter's online classes are presented as aberrations, neither common nor generally accepted. The narrator carefully watches the market to determine the best time to buy and sell the various genetically modified potato and carrot seeds and rootstocks on behalf of his clients, and he views both his sickly younger daughter and rebellious older daughter as distractions. (Spoiler alert: While the climax of the story revolves around a missed opportunity to take advantage of a transient market peak due to a sudden medical crisis for the younger daughter, we are informed in an almost offhand manner that the older daughter eventually contracted and died from something she picked up on one of her outings with her friends.)

Stableford describes a world in 2130 not very different front what the world would become in 2020. In reality, both working from home and online classes for children  are more common and accepted in our timeline than the one he presents. He accurately describes the difficulties for a family isolating together, and the rebellious older sister will be familiar to anyone who has watched in horror tinged with jealousy as crowds cavort without the slightest concern for the consequences.

"The Home Front" is not a pleasant story, nor is it particularly enlightening. But it is descriptive of a reality that so closely resembles our own that future generations may scoff at Stableford's apparent lack of imagination.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Contents of John Lewis' Backpack

one apple
one orange
one tube of toothpaste, for brushing his teeth in the holding cell
one toothbrush, same
one copy of "The American Political Tradition" by Richard Hosfstadter, pub. 1948
one copy of "The Seven Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton, same

they broke his skull
lost his backpack
and he kept on marching

John Robert Lewis
February 21, 1940 - July 17, 2020
On the occasion of his memorial service, July 30, 2020

Wikipedia: James Lawson (activist) (speaker at John Lewis' funeral)
Wikipedia: Czesław Miłosz (poet quoted by James Lawson)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


A new comet, just discovered in late March, is making its way through the pre-sunrise and post-sunset skies. Named Comet NEOWISE for the space telescope that discovered it, it is fading from view in the morning sky, and I wanted to try to capture it before it does.

Currently I am working from home due to COVID-19. I work night shift, 4:30 PM to 1:00 AM, which is convenient for a lot of reasons. I knew that this morning would be one of the last opportunities to see the comet in the morning. (Night viewing will require me to observe during my lunch.) I stayed awake after work, which is usually the case because of the large amount of coffee I drink from my lunch break on. I dozed a bit, but roused myself after 3:00 AM to check the sky for clouds. It was crystal clear, with Venus shining bright in the East.  I got myself together and headed out at 4:00.

The sky was beautiful and full of stars, but no comet that I could see. I swept the sky and the horizon with my camera, hoping to capture a hidden comet. Nothing. After about 45 minutes the sky was brightening, and I knew it would soon be impossible to see the comet, wherever it was. I took one more set of sweeping-the-horizon photos, snapped off a few others, and went in to go to bed.

I woke up just a few hours later and reviewed my photos, frustrated I couldn't see any comet. Then I spotted a faint blur lurking over a neighbor's house, just over the treetops.

And there it was.

So I captured the comet, even though I didn't know it. I would have liked to have been able to zoom in on it, but you take what you can get.

I snapped a few pictures of the Pleiades. In this one I also captured my neighbor's T.A.R.D.I.S. bird house, currently occupied by some purple-and-white tree sparrows.

And of course, I had to grab the Moon. The terminator is about to slide into a region relatively devoid of craters, so pictures after this will be somewhat less interesting. Not that I plan yo be up to take them.

One last shot, capturing the colors of the pre-dawn sky:

Now, to try to capture Comet NEOWISE in the evening.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Opening Day 2020: Rose of Sharon

For the record:  just like that, the dozens of Rose of Sharon in our yard have begun to open this afternoon, Sunday, July 12, 2020, with a great profusion of colors and shapes. They weren't open this morning, and they weren't open yesterday. Maybe yesterday's afternoon of intense ten-minute showers spaced out every 45 minutes followed by today's sunshine caused the blooms to pop open.

Pictures to follow, maybe.

UPDATE: I went out on 7/13/2020 to photograph the amazing variety of colors and shapes of these blossoms, and found that ONE Rose of Sharon had bloomed, with white blossoms with red centers. I thought I saw a pink one open yesterday, but it wasn't today. I'll try to note when the others open.

Recipe: Amish coffee cake

(OK, this recipe is technically a variation on Amish Cinnamon Bread, but it has very little in common with bread and is much more like cake. This is a direct port of this recipe, cut in half and modified per the suggestions of the Twitter poster who originally wrote about it, see below.)

Amish Coffee Cake (1/2 recipe for Amish Cinnamon Bread from Lil' Luna, modified)


If creating a buttermilk substitute, prepare it first. It needs to rest 5 minutes before being added.


1 cup milk + 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup milk + 1 teaspoon vinegar
1 cup milk + 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup sour cream + 1/3 cup milk (this is what I used in this recipe)

Blend and let stand five minutes before use.

In small bowl, combine dry ingredients:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt**

In large bowl, combine sugar, softened butter, egg, buttermilk, and vanilla until creamy.
Blend as each one is added. Blend all until creamy. (Buttermilk may cause some liquid/solid separation.)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk*
1 teaspoon vanilla**

Gradually add dry ingredients to wet ingredients. Mix well.

Add any inclusions (finely chopped apples, blueberries, chocolate chips, etc.)

If using dry topping, prepare before pouring out batter.

Cinnamon/Sugar topping: 
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Crumb topping
I made this again today (10/4/2020) , but added a large chopped Honeycrisp apple to the batter (3/4) and topping (1/4.) I also added ginger, ground cloves, and nutmeg to the cinnamon/sugar. Next time I make this - soon, with the other Honeycrisp apple I bought - I may replace the cinnamon/sugar with a crumb topping base, adapted from my Shoo Fly Cake recipe.

Also used with blueberry variation.

1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
Spices: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cardamon

Crumb topping #2, Martha Stewart variation:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup light-brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces  

Add HALF of batter to greased loaf pan.

Cover with 3/4 of cinnamon sugar mixture.

Add remaining batter.

Sprinkle on remaining cinnamon sugar.

BAKE at 350 degrees (Fahrenheit) for 45-50 minutes.

**not in original recipe, modified per Twitter user @GeorgeWept

NOTE: The cake rose several inches from the loaf pan and leaked out in one spot. Recommend placing the loaf pan on a cookie sheet to catch drips. Also recommend rotating partway through baking time for even heating.

The cake seems excessively sweet. If I make it again, I may reduce the sugar, swap out some or all sugar with brown sugar, and add ginger and diced apples.

Broiled walnut glaze (for chocolate chip variation)
(prepare  while cake is in oven)

6 tablespoons butter (softened)
4 tablespoons milk
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

- While the cake is baking, make the topping. In a bowl, combine the butter, milk, brown sugar and nuts. Mix well.
- Spread this mixture all over the top of the warm cake.
- Place under the broiler (turned to low) and bake for 1-3 minutes or until the nut topping is bubbling.
- Remove from the oven and allow the cake to cool.


Last night I saw that "Amish" was trending on Twitter. I don't live in Amish country, but I like to think of Northeastern Pennsylvania as Amish-adjacent - it takes about an hour and a half to get to areas that are predominantly Amish or Mennonite, but it's not that unusual to see folks in traditional garb in stores, supermarkets, or just walking down the street.

I really have no idea why "Amish" was trending, but attempting to investigate led to this tweet:

That looked good, and I knew I would be up early this morning to try to see comet NEOWISE. I found the link to the recipe, saw that I had all the necessary ingredients, noted the modifications recommended by the Twitter poster, and (after inexplicably jamming my thumb into my right eye, possibly while trying to brush away an overlong wisp of hair) went to bed.

I woke up before 5:00 in the morning, as planned. The sky still seemed sufficiently dark that I might see comet NEOWISE just before sunrise. No luck. This is the earliest photo I took:

5:12 AM, looking east-by-northeast. No comets detected. Venus is at upper right.
I set my tripod up at the entrance to the local high-school football stadium, where I would have a clear and unobstructed view of the East. This placed me on a street with houses to either side of me. I was hoping to complete my mission without running into anyone else. But eventually a cheerful "Good morning!" came from my right. I returned the greeting without turning from the camera. They said, hopefully, "Oh a few more minutes to go?" - assuming I was there to photograph the sunrise. I responded that I was hoping to see the comet, and having no luck, and that it was probably already too late to see it. They left it at that, possibly not wanting to inquire further into this "comet" of which I spoke.

Otherwise it was just me, the ever-brightening sky, the unseen comet, the birds greeting the sunrise, and the sound of not-too-distant fireworks. (Seriously? At 5:30 in the morning on a Sunday?) I was eventually able to capture one of the birds:

As sunrise neared I decided to pack it in and head home. As I walked up the hill to my house I realized I had an opportunity to photograph the Last Quarter Moon:

Once home, I decided to grab pictures of some of the cats for a "Pets and who/what they're named after" thing on Twitter. Here are three of the cats:
Bojangles, named for dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Picture taken Saturday, July 11, 2020.
Spumoni, named for the dessert. She is Bojangles's litter mate. When I first saw them as kittens peering at me from deep in the shadows in my garden shed last May, I didn't realize they were two different cats.

Amber, one of the older cats. Named because she is amber. This is a lucky shot - she rarely comes out of concealment when I am around.
(Edited the afternoon of 7/12/2020 to add two more cats):

Mama Cat, with Spumoni behind her. A trick of the light brought out the yellow in her, but in reality she and Spumoni are identical in coloration and have very similar markings, except in the face. (They are also almost exactly the same size, except Spumoni has short little legs. Spumoni adores her mother, and sleeps with her most of the time.) She is mother of Bojangles and Spumoni, as well as their tawny sibling Simba, who vanished even before I could grab Bojangles. She was also mother to another litter of three cats, all of whom died before reaching six weeks - by which time she was pregnant again. We knew we had to grab her and break the cycle of baby-making, and grab Spumoni as well, since tortoiseshells are always female.

Babusz, who - holy crap! - is fourteen years old. She is three years older than the next oldest cats, except for Romeo, a longhair we inherited in 2011 from a neighbor who  got him in 2005 or earlier. Like all our cats (except Romeo) she is a feral, but I call her a "Russian Blue" - how accurate that is, I do not know. Silver-gray with bright white whiskers.

Comet NEOWISE is moving into the evening sky, so maybe I'll have better luck looking West-by-Northwest over the next week.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Recipe: Banana Cake (from Mamie)

We have two bananas just starting to go brown, so I want to make a banana cake. My mom located her old recipe, which is a bit vague. Recipe first, story after:

Banana Cake (Mamie)

1/2 cup butter (or Crisco)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup mashed bananas
4 teaspoons sour milk (or more)*
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt if not using butter

350 degrees (Fahrenheit)

And...that's it. The assumption is that the cake is baked for 35-40 minutes. My mom remembers using vanilla icing, but I remember the icing being a grayish-buff color that matched the cake and might have been made with some mashed bananas. The store-bought banana cakes she has come to love are made with cream cheese icing, so I might try that.**

Mamie was my Cioci Mamie, my grandfather's sister Marie. She was born in 1900 and lived to be 91. She was a spinster great-aunt. She was always old, as long as I can remember, and would have been about 70 when I first took note of her. She was a bit off, loved to drink, and was very generous. Part of our weekend ritual was that after getting up on Sunday, going to church, having a family breakfast of Polish sausage with my aunts and uncles and cousins, and making a visit to the cemetery, my family would come home to settle in for an afternoon meal that my mom had cooked before we went to church. Afterwards, not every Sunday but many of them, Cioci Mamie would stop over with her shopping bags in hand. She wasn't a "bag lady": she was bringing over bags of candy that she had bought for us "kidsies" (and for my cousins, who lived in two houses next to each other a block away.) She would walk over a mile and a half from the hilly part of town where she lived, and then walk back, unless my uncle gave her a ride home. Our chihuahua Chico loved her, and would bark and jump up and down while she sat in a rocking chair until she petted him on the head and called him "nutzie koo-koo" and let him shower her with kisses. She would tell us stories, gossip about her friends, tell us about her latest bus trip to a shrine in Canada. (She was probably the most well-traveled of my entire family.) Other than these visits, I would see her at holiday dinners, weddings, funerals, and on an occasional visit to her house. (She lived about two blocks from my grandmother. One of my cousins bought her house after she died, and still lives there.) She took aspirins for her health long before any official declaration of the health benefits came out, but apparently took too many, casing some gastric bleeding. She spent the last year or so of her life in a nursing home down the street from my house. By then I was back from my stint in Delaware, but I didn't yet own a car, so I saw her from time to time. I am told that she cried out "I want more life!" before she died. By any measure she had had a long life, but that might not have been enough.

This is her recipe. Enjoy it, and buy some candy for the kidsies.

Cioci Mamie is at the bottom row, second from the right, in a white dress, looking askance. My grandfather, her brother, is left of center in the dark suit, holding a cigar and looking delighted. My grandmother is next to him in glasses, looking other-than-amused. 
As a much younger woman, probably in the 1920s

*I suspect this is a typo and should read TABLESPOONS, not teaspoons. When made as directed, the batter was very thick, like a thick cookie dough. I added more soured milk (milk mixed with lemon juice in a 4/1 ratio) to thin it out. The ratio is three teaspoons to a Tablespoon.

**1 box powdered sugar (approx. 4 cups)
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
8 oz. cream cheese
Approx. 1 Tablespoon milk, added by drops

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Dream: The Poetry Festival

This dream was lost, and then recovered with some effort. It was from last night.

The pandemic was over. People were happy to go "back to normal," but for many, that wasn't enough. We were having blowouts, making up for lost time, doing the things we hadn't been able to do during however long the pandemic had lasted, but doing them bigger.

One of those things was a poetry festival. It had started out as a poetry reading, but that wasn't enough. The members of the poetry community of Northeastern Pennsylvania had set aside their differences long enough to create a big community event: poetry readings, poetry open mics, seminars, workshops, q&a sessions, special events for kids, all of it held in the Hoyt Library in Kingston, PA.

I have been to the Hoyt Library in real life exactly once, on November 18, 2013, for a poetry reading (with open mic to follow.) I went there with a friend whose mother was in the hospital - dying of cancer, though we didn't know that yet. We stopped at the hospital so my friend could see her mom before we went out for the night, and so she could drop off some clothes. It was just going to be a quick visit, unlike the long visits we had been making every other afternoon. Parking outside of the hospital was difficult, so I dropped her off and waited in the car. After a reasonable amount of time had passed - maybe 15 minutes - I began to get antsy. After a few more minutes, I realized we were losing our safety margin for getting to the poetry reading early. Several minutes later, I realized we were losing our safety margin for getting there late. I parked the car and went inside.

I found my friend in her mother's room, recovering from a panic attack. I was able to ease her out of the attack, and then out of the room. I confirmed that she still wanted to go to the reading - it was featuring a poet we both liked and admired, even though it was being hosted by someone who had a well-earned reputation for being a dick. She did. The reading would be starting in less than five minutes. It would take at least twenty-five minutes to navigate out of Scranton, get on the highway, and get to Kingston and the Hoyt Library. Then we would need to find parking, figure out where in the library the reading was, and hope to slip in before the reading was over. If there was time, we might even read at the open mic.

I drove there at ludicrous speed, holding her hand the whole way.

We got there twenty minutes late. Poetry readings always start late. We knew the featured poet had a lot of material he could choose from, and we hoped he went long. When we got to the library we were greeted by their amazing second-hand book area, as well-stocked as many bookstores. We found the reading in a side room, where the excited babble of many people talking at once suggested to us that it hadn't yet started.

It was over. The featured poet had completed his set. There was no open mic. This was the after-chatter. 

We met up with the featured poet and apologized for missing his performance. I told his son how his father was one of the only poets who had made me cry. We made small talk with other people we knew. I approached the host and expressed regret at having missed the reading, and surprise that everything had ended so quickly. True to form, he snubbed me, not only refusing to respond, but refusing to acknowledge that he had even heard me.

After a side trip to Wilkes-Barre, I drove my friend home, getting lost along the way. At least I got a poem out of that night.

Back to the dream. The poetry event was being held throughout the library. I wandered through and saw many people I knew. I planned to take part in the open mic, and a workshop run by someone I knew, and a seminar or two. I walked past a room and saw a poet friend I have't seen in real life in over a year, doing a reading for a crowd of children. They sat cross-legged on the floor and looked up at her in rapt attention.

People were all crowded together. Talking, laughing, hugging. Reading poetry out loud, in person, for an audience. No masks. No lingering fear of COVID-19.

Just a dream, for now.

The last poetry event I was to: The final edition of The Writers' Showcase, held in the parking lot of the Old Brick Theatre, Scranton PA, the night of February 22, 2020, under the stars, and in freezing temperatures.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The mask dream

I had a dream last night that left me feeling edgy and stressed. It was in a dreamscape I call "Dream Scranton" - a nightmarish, broken-down (that is, even more broken-down) version of the real place, always under a jet-black sky. Which is odd, because (as I would later recall) the dream wasn't set in Scranton, nor was it initially set at night. I wanted to remember it, to record it, but upon waking, I quickly began to forget details.

Then I saw this:

...and it all came flooding back.

The U.S. is reopening. Stores, restaurants, workplaces...the COVID-19 pandemic isn't over, far from it. It's still burning strong. But people have gotten bored, and restless. They want to ignore this problem and get on with their lives, just like we as a society have ignored so many other problems.

One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong.

In my dream the Barnes & Noble in Wilkes-Barre Township was reopening. This is actually a pretty heartbreaking situation: Two years ago a tornado tore through the Arena Hub Plaza at closing time. No one was killed, but a lot of stores were badly damaged, and some needed to be demolished. Barnes & Noble was salvageable, despite having the tornado clip the store, but it was closed down for seven months while it was rebuilt, reopening at the end of January 2019. In March 2020, it would be closed down again, this time due to the pandemic. It has not reopened yet. But in my dream, it had.

I took a bus there. I'm not sure why. It's been about thirty years since I've taken a bus anywhere. But I took a bus there, and was thrilled to be back in a store. A store full of people. And books! How I had missed being amongst books. I browsed, half-dazed, opening up books at random, looking at the illustrations, reading passages.

And then I realized I had forgotten a mask.

True story.

I felt absolute terror. How could I put everyone else at risk like this? And then I looked around at all the people in the bookstore with me, and noticed that none of them were wearing masks, either.

Oh, fuck, I have to get out of here, I thought. I had to go home. Get my mask.

Only it was late at night, the buses had stopped running,* and I was twelve miles from home with no mask and no way to get home.

Dozens of people responded to that first tweet above with examples of their own mask dreams. The stress is getting to us. Getting into our dreams. Dreams about forgetting to wear a mask. Dreams about other people not wearing theirs.

The U.S. is starting to reopen, and I'm worried things are about to get a lot worse.

Just wear a damned mask, mmmkay?

*In reality, we started late-night bus service in this area a while back. It's almost 3:00 AM and I just heard one go by.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Poem: keeping watch

keeping watch

(written early in the morning of June 1, 2020)

Less than a week ago we watched a video
for the first time, already viral, already everywhere
of a white police office staring into the camera lens as
he kneels on the neck of a black man
over a matter of a fake twenty dollar bill
(SAY HIS NAME: the black man was Floyd George
the kneeling cop was Derek Chauvan)
the man says the familiar words
made famous by another dying man
a man murdered six years ago for the crime of selling loose cigarettes
(Eric Garner, killed by officer Daniel Pantaleo with an illegal chokehold):
"I can't breathe,"
over and over.

We watched as the cop orders him to stand up
while he continues to kneel on him
Floyd George pleads for his life
cries out to his mother
and dies.


We watched as it took days to come,
the rage
the protests
the cries for justice
the opportunists who saw a chance to fuck shit up
the provocateurs who did their jobs in fucking shit up
to create the justification for what would come next

(keep breathing. in, out, through your mask. the trick is to remember to breathe.)
(just don't get the 'vid. wash your hands and say your prayers and stay six feet apart.)

We watched a man knelt upon until he died
and then a few minutes longer for good measure

We watched a reporter arrested for reporting
he told the cops who he was
his camera crew and press badge were hard to miss
"Just following orders," the cops in military gear said
They released him, hours later, after they "confirmed" who he was

We watched local police in full tactical armor
carrying military weapons and driving armored vehicles
no expense spared, as teachers collect box tops for education
try to teach online classes from their own homes
as nurses wear garbage bags and bandannas
and die of COVID-19 anyway

We watched a cop take aim directly at a news crew and fire
rubber bullets, or pepper bullets, no harm done
(just ask Victoria E. Snelgrove
October 29, 1982 - October 21, 2004
she took a pepper bullet to the eye socket and died, horribly,
while celebrating the Red Sox getting into the World Series)

We watched a cop on horseback plow over a protester
another kick a girl in the face as she sat on the ground, weeping
watched cops push down an old man who maybe wasn't moving fast enough for them

We watched a tanker truck barrel down a closed highway
(how did it get on the highway? golly, such a mystery)
aiming for a crowd of protesters
going for the high score
they part before him
his truck stops short of the last few
the cops move in quickly to keep him from harm

We watched marching National Guard fire on
people standing on their own front porch
for the crime of standing on their own front porch

We watched white boys with hammers
white boys smashing the windows of stores
white boys looting them
white boys setting them on fire
black-owned businesses burn in the night

We watched a reporter return to the parking lot where he had left his car
to find that the cops who swarmed the lot had
slashed the tires of his rental
along with the tires of every other car in the lot.

Say you have 99,999 good cops and 1 bad cop.
But the 99,999 good cops close ranks to protect the 1 bad cop.
How may bad cops do you have?

We watched the lights go out in the White House
its occupant hiding in an underground bunker
(So weit ist es also gekommen?)

We watched until we couldn't watch anymore
and even after we turned it off
it's still there
When will it end?
It's been four hundred and one years
perhaps we're at the halfway mark
keep watching

Thursday, May 28, 2020

A white crocus before the storm

Sunday, March 15, 2020. We knew what was coming. We knew what COVID-19 had done in other countries, what it was doing in other parts of our own country. San Francisco had been on lockdown for a while. New York City was about to follow suit, sort of, if it hadn't already. Death was burning its way through nursing homes in Washington and California. The dying had already begun elsewhere, on a scale so small it seems laughable now. Perhaps 150 deaths altogether attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. by March 15. A far cry from the 100,000 milestone we probably crossed today.

It was St. Patrick's Day weekend. A few days early; the day itself wouldn't be until Tuesday, March 17. But that didn't prevent people from celebrating that weekend, despite the threat posed by the virus, despite the warnings. Some chose to stay home and stay safe, only to find themselves mingling with partygoers when they returned to work on Monday - most workplaces hadn't closed yet. (My own workplace wouldn't close down until March 20.)

I couldn't get a fix on the March 15 data point. By March 18 the U.S. had 189 cumulative deaths attributed to COVID-19.
Governor Wolf hadn't issued the stay-at-home order for Luzerne County yet, and wouldn't for another twelve days. The Bishop of the Diocese of Scranton lifted the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday but did not close the churches; he advised that anyone attending Mass that weekend take appropriate precautions. (I watched the televised Mass held at Saint Peter's Cathedral in Scranton that weekend, and it was obvious that almost no one in attendance was taking appropriate precautions. I imagine the Bishop was as horrified as I was, because he immediately shut down all Catholic churches in the Diocese going forward.) March 15 felt like it might be the last day I could move about freely without concern for an invisible killer lurking in the air. I took my camera and headed out to the cemetery to get photos for my mom, whom I had already been keeping quarantined for a week. To see if the crocuses were blooming.

They were. We had a bumper crop this year: over a dozen purple crocuses, at least one yellow crocus, and a brilliant white crocus that had sprouted up away from all the others. I took numerous photos to share with my mom, to give her a taste of a world she was now locked away from.

The photo at the top of this post is the last photo of that set. The purple and yellow crocuses form a dim background against the granite base of the family tombstone, almost like a tapestry or set painting. The white crocus shines like a brilliant promise of better things to come.

The crocuses are all dead now. The flowering bits, at least. The underground parts are waiting to come back next year. Since that time, nearly 100,000 other Americans have died. Now, without any justification, there's a huge push to reopen, to return to normalcy. "Enough is enough, reopen now!" is the rallying cry. Soon, I fear, the 100,000 dead will seem as quaint and small as the number of deaths on March 15, barely seventy-five days ago.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A dream of reopening in the time of COVID-19

I have been too silent during this time. Now is the time for bloggers to do their damned jobs and write the street-level history of what's happening at whatever phase of this crisis we're in. I've got stuff ready to roll, but I just haven't been able to bring myself to write. Maybe soon.

I had a dream last night that I can remember, and I want to write it down before I forget.

Here in the real world we have adopted what is being called the "new normal": Face masks (usually cloth half-masks covering the mouth and nose) and "social distancing" (maintaining a distance of at least six feet / two meters from other people at all times, far too small by some measures) to avoid transmission of the disease by asymptomatic carriers, people who are sick and contagious but don't know it yet.

The disease is still rampant in the U.S. California and Washington did a good job of squashing their early outbreaks. New York City had their outbreak turn into an inferno, but after a few weeks of half-measures followed by many more weeks of hard work and lots of dying, they have finally "bent the curve" so that new cases and deaths are both trending down. The same is not true for much of the rest of the country, where infections and deaths are on the upswing, but at smaller numbers than New York City's. The net effect is a reduction in numbers, but that hides the story of what is going on outside of New York City.

From the Financial Times. U.S. data as of Friday, May 23, 2020.

After nearly two months of varying levels of isolation and quarantine, people are getting antsy. "Enough is enough, reopen now!" is their rallying cry. Many are making the argument that there is an level of death that is acceptable in exchange for being able to go out to restaurants and beauticians and...flea markets.

Having a second wave of COVID-19 run through NEPA because of a prematurely opened flea market would be very on-brand for this area.  

The wearing of masks has become a political issue. The CDC, despite Donald Trump's efforts to muzzle it, has issued guidelines recommending the use of masks or cloth face coverings to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Right-wing pundits are routinely attacking masks as useless, and their followers have picked up on their cry. In truth, any mask that isn't at least as effective as an N-95 respirator will not protect its wearer from the virus. But that's not what the masks are for. They're basically spit guards, intended to keep you from spewing out droplets of moisture from your moth and nose that can carry the virus and infect others. The mask isn't intended to protect its wearer, but rather everyone around its wearer. Individuals lacking in empathy cannot grasp this concept.

Also, it can look pretty cool.

Right-wing pundit and former journalist Brit Hume is questioning whether this is a good look for future President Joe Biden. Current occupant of the White House Donald Trump refuses to wear a mask, even in situations where all present are required to do so. I think Biden's blacker-than-black mask and aviator sunglasses make him look like the character Validator from Marvel Comics.

The use of masks is strongly recommended in any public place, and is required in many private areas like supermarkets. An anti-mask league has appeared of people adamantly refusing to wear masks, causing disruptions when asked to do so (and occasionally murdering anyone who has the temerity to refuse them entry without a mask), and sneering at, ridiculing, and coughing or even spitting on those who are wearing masks. An informal survey by writer and notorious Twitter troublemaker Gail Simone revealed vast regional differences: in some areas old people wear them, but not the young, and in other places it's the opposite; some places have most people wearing masks, while in others mask-wearing is the exception; and in some cases couples are seen where the woman wears a mask while the man does not. (On a recent grocery store trip the only person I saw not wearing a mask was the woman in a couple; her mask was pulled down around her neck.)

Anyway, about that dream...

I had a dream that restaurants in this area had reopened. Social distancing and mask-wearing were still recommended but not required. Several of my friends and I went out to eat at some restaurant that seemed to have a blue-lit underwater cave theme. I realized as we stood in line to be seated that I had forgotten my mask, but then I noticed no one else was wearing one.  I became very anxious and uncomfortable. We moved to select our seats, which seemed to be arranged in two tiers of stadium-style seating around an empty swimming pool, like an arena. (The feeling was that this was a Medieval Times-style restaurant, where the entertainment took place in the pool - an interesting but ultimately very expensive concept.) My friends wanted to sit in a crowded part of the arena, but I asked if we could sit in the one part that was relatively empty. The seats there were upholstered and overstuffed and looked much more comfortable, anyway.

And that's it. That's all I remember now, more than three hours after I awoke.

I wonder what everyone else is dreaming about?

(P.S. I'm seeing ads for face masks with valves built in. Please don't buy those masks. The valves defeat the purpose of the mask.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Night, April 21, 2020

Sleepless at 4 AM
fistful of glitter in the deep-azure sky
Jupiter and Mars rising in the East
meteor across the heart of the Swan

and I
touch the doorknob to go back inside
touch the doorknob to close the door
lock it against all the bad things out there

make my ablutions at the kitchen sink
age-yellowed Ivory soap and hot water
for your penance say one Our Father (17 seconds)
and one Hail Mary (12 seconds)
pat your hands dry
be clean
and go the hell to bed